The Witch (2016) Review
Certificate: 15 Running Time: 1hr 32 Mins
Cast: Anya Taylor Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”
Robert Eggers’s New England folktale crawls from the depths of darkness to emerge as a blood-curdling dose of religious horror. It’s the closest thing to waking up in a Puritan’s nightmare; the deeply disturbing portrait of terror revives the wickedness of the witch in a clutch of slow-burning hysteria. There’s an omnipotent evil lurking, that tension-fuelled angst that crushes any faint glimmer of hope. Every glance, each turn of phrase is drenched in fear. It’s an excruciating irony as a God-fearing family is overcome with the feral presence of an arcane malevolence. The mysterious evil takes many forms as it erodes the innocence of youth and captures the biblical essence of original sin. Eggers’s vision may be unbearably grim for some but for those who can withstand its harsh edge will find much to admire in this promising debut feature.
The Witch is a spine-tingling slow-burner that lingers on the mind with its haunting imagery, unrelenting bleakness and deeply disturbing climax. The authenticity and wherewithal to capture the mood of early life in the early 1600s is a remarkable achievement. It makes for an immersive experience; a world bought to life by the artistry of production designer, Craig Lathrop and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. Nods to Kubrick’s seminal The Shining (1980) throughout are unmistakable while the undertones of the The Witchfinder General (1968) contribute toward ensuring that this is the standout genre film of the year. It won’t bludgeon with its brilliance but it remains permanent in the deeper embers of the subconscious, blooming like a dark flower with every passing day.
Set 1630s New England, a Puritan family is excommunicated from their plantation and banished into the wilderness for their ‘prideful conceit’. Exiled and left to fend for themselves in the remoteness of a rural farm; British farmer, William, and his young family believe that they have evoked the wrath of God and are facing ‘punishment’ for their sins. Seeking repentance and purification from their misdemeanors; the family are pitted against the unknown as they are struck by the mysterious disappearance of their youngest son. A plunge into the occult ensues. Is there an ominous evil lurking in the woods? Or is it the eldest daughter, Thomasin (the brilliant Anya Taylor-Joy), responsible for the deed?
The heightened sense paranoia seeps from every frame as crops begin to fail, wild stock begin behaving strangely and accusations of witchcraft are flung towards Thomasin. Her vulnerability is striking as her mother (the hysterical Kate Dickie) remain convinced that she’s adopted black magic. The child’s journey through the narrative is harrowing as she’s chastised and ridden with guilt by those closest to her. A foreboding aura surrounds the family that intensifies as eldest son, Caleb, overcome by original sin and lustful thoughts, is possessed by an evil force after being lost in the forest. Animals are hugely symbolic and play an integral role as hares and goats become embroiled in a deadly descent into chaos. Black Phillip is sure to become a modern horror icon.
This breed of horror crawls under the skin with its devilishly eerie tone. It conjures up the darker recess of human history and crucially occurs before the Salem Witch trials in the 1690s. Tapping into fears of the mainstream consciousness at the time unequivocally remain true to this day. Eggers has made the idea of the ‘witch’ scary again. That final scene makes the skin crawl. A genuine rarity these days.
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