Review: The Witch is authentic, unsettling and fantastically morose

Horror is a genre commonly built on a standard structure. The audience follows a small group of characters as their environment proves to betray them and a grisly fate befalls them one-by-one.

It’s a well-worn format, but one that works because of human psychology. In order to feel fear, we need to relate to a character on screen. The danger needs to somehow feel tangible, a real threat beyond the fiction. Robert Eggers’ The Witch shows how this basic structure can produce a stunning result, even in the most unexpected settings.

Taking place in 17th century New England, The Witch follows a colonial family that has been cast out by their community and is haunted by a nefarious presence deep in the woods. It’s a very simple film that exclusively focuses on a cast of seven characters (four of whom are children under the age of 12). The dialogue is done in period-appropriate English, complete with segments taken directly from journals dating back to the time period. As a result, The Witch has scenes that bear closer resemblance to a BBC historical drama than a contemporary horror film. But a series of strong performances and bold artistic choices keep every moment engaging.

Newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin, the eldest daughter of a family in collapse. As the tension mounts, she’s forced to defend her innocence against mounting fear. It’s a nuanced role, and Taylor-Joy mostly succeeds in her portrayal. However, she’s outshined by an ensemble cast working far more interesting characters. Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie (both Game of Thrones alumni) are the heads of households in this doomed family, and offer the most psychologically interesting meat of the story. As supernatural disaster occurs, they lose their grip on sanity, faith and familial bonds in search of protection. Even the young Harvey Scrimshaw is given an amazing monologue that he warps into one of the film’s most unsettling moments.

It’s very easy for The Witch to get under your skin. The subject matter just barely turns away from some unbelievably gruesome moments, told with a very cold and naturalistic eye. It’s easy to get lost in its long shots across the cold New England woods, cautious of whatever may hide behind the trees. At night, natural candlelight paints chilling images with flickers of flame on skin. It’s wonderfully effective and makes for a difficult film to shake once it concludes.

Perhaps the strongest element of The Witch is its simplicity. The pace moves briskly from moment to moment, never letting the audience recover. Instead, we’re left to fester in the memory of a scene as it fades away. Once the credits start, you could be convinced only a few short minutes have passed. It’s a tense, authentic period horror film that doesn’t stray an inch from its artistic vision.

Follow Chris Berg on Twitter @ChrisBerg25

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Chris Berg

Chris Berg