Over the past few years, there has emerged a new class of intelligent horror films that favor pacing and setting over cheap jump scares and bombastic music cues. Films like The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy are able to create a kind of tense and unnerving mood by way of patient storytelling and I’m happy to say that first-time director Robert Eggers has added another memorable entry to the collection. Subtitled “A New England Folktale”, The Witch is a one-of-a-kind 17th century-set supernatural tale that uses authentically archaic dialogue and a stark color palette to create a chilly and disorienting atmosphere of slow-building dread.
We follow William (Ralph Ineson) and his deeply religious Puritan family as they are banished from a plantation and forced to relocate to a remote area seated right at the edge of a large forest. When his daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching her infant brother one morning, he is swiftly and mysteriously abducted by a figure that the family concludes to be a witch from the woods. This news devastates their mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) in particular and after additional suspicious events occur, the seeds of mistrust are sown within the family and they begin to suspect one another of conspiring with the new forces of evil.
There’s a meticulous craft (dare I say witchcraft?) that went into the production of The Witch and much of that credit has to go to writer-director Robert Eggers, who allegedly committed years of research to uncovering what 17th century life was really like. The attention to detail in the costume design and the set design contributes heavily to the sense that we’re actually being transported back to this time. Even a majority of the film’s dialogue was sourced directly from period journals, diaries, and court records of the time, which almost makes it a scarier proposition than the “based on true events” claims of its genre peers.
This level of staid commitment is also carried out by the performers, who may be familiar to zealous fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones but will likely be new faces for the rest of the audience. Ineson plays the tortured patriarch William with humble conviction and Dickie is fearlessly compelling as the grieving mother with insurmountable misfortune cast her way. But the real revelation is the haunting, star-making turn by Anya Taylor-Joy as the oldest daughter Thomasin, who showcases a maturity well beyond her years and proves in only her second film role to date that she has a promising career ahead.
The final piece to this pernicious puzzle is the eerie, skin-crawling music scored by Mark Korven that makes use of dissonant string parts and haunted choir vocals to brilliantly demonic effect. It all adds up to a singular cinematic experience that may be too dour and self-serious in patches but still casts quite the spell during its lean running time. Few horror films have the certitude to look evil so nakedly in the eye but The Witch manages to weaves its unholy elements into something unshakable and unmissable.