photo courtesy of A24
Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin in The Witch
For seventeenth-century English Puritan Joseph Glanvill, belief in the supernatural was a prerequisite for belief in God. Folktales about ghosts, witches, and devils weren't just children's pastimes, but a vital part of the historical record. The stories Glanvill collected captured readers’ imaginations long after skepticism became the norm for England's educated bourgeoisie, inspiring early gothic novelists who saw supernatural fiction as a history of consciousness. Through meticulous research and detailed craftsmanship, director Robert Eggers returns to the roots of Anglo-American horror in The Witch
, reconstructing the demon-haunted world of early English settlers from their own accounts.
An amalgam of witch folklore from journals and other archival sources (its subtitle is "A New England folktale"), the film’s premise is simple: a New England farming family is banished from its village after a conflict with the village parish. They are soon visited by an evil presence from the surrounding woods. Successive encounters gradually dismantle their faith in God, survival, and themselves, until even the children are at each others’ throats. The pacing is a merciless slow burn punctuated by rare, effective flashes of transcendent horror. These scenes distinguish themselves with classical influences—more Goya and Salvator Rosa than Carpenter or Craven.
Eggers handles the mechanics of the genre as well as anyone working in horror today, but atmosphere is where he really shines. Four years in the making, The Witch
rivals Terrence Malick's The New Worl
d in its zeal to accurately represent the nation's colonial past. Eggers, who grew up in New Hampshire, drew on his childhood fascination with witch lore and his background as a production designer, as is evident in everything from the fully functional seventeenth-century farm to the period dialogue cribbed from diaries and printed sermons. While the bleak tone and formal compositions evoke Kubrick's The Shining
and Von Trier's Antichrist
, along with a dozen other art-film forebears, the accumulation of small details produces a sense of “otherness” that gives The Witch
a power of its own.
Beyond its material verisimilitude, the film recovers a vanished moral universe in which God and the Devil are matters of fact, not faith. The key dramatic conflict is a consequence of this worldview. As patriarch William and wife Katherine (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie from Game of Thrones
) are exiled from their community for William's extreme religious views (echoing the Puritans’ flight from England), oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is exiled from her family as an object of suspicion, scapegoated for denying ties to the witch. Like the infamous young women of Salem, she is barely post-pubescent, and we sense early on that all William's talk of original sin is directed at her. For us, there is no mystery—Eggers makes it clear that the witch is real but that the fears of Thomasin’s family are born of their own religious hubris.
What keeps The Witch
from fully rising to its ambitions is a curatorial approach that also plagues its art-horror contemporaries, from Ti West's faux-eighties trompe l'oeil thriller The House of the Devil
to Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz's Goodnight Mommy
. The film seems content to present its various horrors and esoteric references without apparent purpose or insight. Despite uniformly excellent performances from Taylor-Joy and the rest of the cast (and a bravura final scene), the austere style and the mannered script preclude emotional investment in Thomasin's journey into darkness. Feminist subtext has been de rigueur for witch fiction since The Crucible
in 1953, and Eggers does little more than gesture in its direction. Still, horror filmmaking has been in the creative doldrums for a while now, and the first-time director has certainly marked himself as someone to watch.