After a family is exiled from their New England plantation in the 17th century, they are forced to take settlement on a site near a dense forest. The family begin their lives there, unaware of the evil forces that lurk in the nearby woods.
First time director Robert Eggers nails his vision of this period horror. The film is a brooding portrayal of loss and fear at it’s core, as it slowly builds the tension, dropping horrific scenes in sporadic beats across the course of the film. It’s more reminiscent of the style of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and the horror films of Ti West, like The House Of The Devil, in where there aren’t really many jump-scares like other classic horror films, but rather the dread and melancholia is built up at a crawl. The film is most effective in it’s disturbing imagery and scenes, which is an ideal formula for a modern, non-mainstream horror film.
The look of the film is excellent, with lots of bleak colours that set the tone. The style is confounded by the imagery of the setting and costume design, which all add to the sense of dread coursing through the film’s veins. The practical effects are very realistic and just make the horror scenes stick with you all that much more and while they’re not super-gory like some other horror films, they may have a profound effect on some viewers, especially to those that wouldn’t normally watch horror films.
The film stars a mostly unknown cast of actors whose faces film fans would have seen at some point in other films and shows, but probably couldn’t recollect which ones (with the mother and father actors anyway, played here by Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie). Both are excellent but the standout performance credit must be given to the son and daughter characters Caleb and Thomasin, played by Harvey Scrimshaw and Anya Taylor-Joy respectively. The young stars put in an exceptional performance, especially considering the subject matter and some of the disturbing scenes they partake in.
The film does also have some flaws. It’s quite wordy with it’s dialogue and the language of the period can be a bit off-putting. The film is also shot in a rarely used 1:1.66 aspect ratio, which is quite narrower than the classic 16:9/1.85:1 ratio most cinematic films are shot in these days. It actually may have served the horror better if it were shot in an ultra-wide format like 2.39:1, which would have allowed the filmmakers to capture even more of the foreboding scenery.
As far as films based on the topic of witches goes, The Witch jumps straight to the top of list. Most witch films we’re subjected to these days are sensationalised and fantastical, whereas The Witch really focuses on the themes of suspense and terror of the subject, as well as family dynamics. With it’s great cast and acting, excellent cinematography and score, dreadful build-up and unsettling payoffs, The Witch is a must-see for all horror film fans.
Stephen King, who is often called the “master of horror,” has stated that he was terrified by this film.