By Jeff Pfeiffer, www.channelguidemag.com
“Did ye make an unholy bond with that goat?”
This line is among the sometimes-tricky-to-listen-to Puritan-ese spoken in The Witch that, out of context, may seem ridiculous. But within the world of writer/director Robert Eggers’ frightening film, viewers will take it in with a shuddering seriousness (a footnote to the film indicates that much of such dialogue was taken straight from source material of the time).
That is part of what makes Eggers so successful in his presentation of his self-described “New England folk tale” — his willingness to fully immerse us in the world of 1630 America (or, what would become America), and his actors’ full commitment to their parts. Most films set in the Puritan era that I’ve seen settle for using somewhat updated language, maybe with a few “thys” and “thines” thrown in with some accents, and let us imagine we are back in that time.
But in The Witch, I find that the strict adherence to not only the communication of the time but also to the everyday rituals and ways of thinking (all of which revolved around God) is key to understanding the characters, and to experiencing their growing terror at what befalls them.
The characters are a family who, for reasons we are not made privy to but seem related to the father’s troublemaking actions (I kind of got the vibe that he was accusing the others of not being religious enough; if you can actually annoy other Puritans with your proselytizing, that is saying something), are banished from their enclosed settlement and forced to live on the outskirts of a creepy-looking woods.
The family consists of father William (Ralph Ineson), mother Katherine (Kate Dickie), older teen daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson, playing two of the creepiest twins you’ll see outside of The Shining), and a newborn son. All of the actors are exceptional, especially Taylor-Joy, whose character becomes a main focus.
The family’s appearance at the woods is where Eggers’ other directorial talents come into play, when he pits the stark realism of his characters against the increasing phantasms of whatever lurks among the trees. “Folk tale” is an appropriate subtitle for the film, as Eggers creates a brooding, fairy-tale atmosphere, subtly and overtly including elements from such ancient stories that have become embedded into our consciousness: the dark woods that contain a spooky house; a red-cloaked figure running through those woods; babies and children in peril; creepy animals that may or may not speak; and, of course, a witch.
The notion that there is, in fact, a witch (or witches) inhabiting the woods is made clear early on, so it’s the family’s response to the paranormal actions that is fascinating to watch. While Thomasin and Caleb seem to have their doubts that their father’s prayers and preaching are the answer to everything, William and Katherine are determined to pray their way through (though even Katherine begins to wonder if God is ignoring her in the wake of a family tragedy).
In a sense, the film resembles The Shining in that outside supernatural forces play upon a family’s simmering fears and resentments. Here, though, rather than alcohol playing a role as it did in Stephen King’s masterwork, it is the intoxication of religious fervor — and the fact that it cannot explain everything that the family is encountering — that sets many of them over the edge.
Eventually, that fervor leads them to suspecting that one of their members is the witch. In a recalling of the infamous Salem witch trials, where a woman’s sexuality often seemed to be a strong indicator that she was “evil,” suspicion begins to fall on Thomasin, who has developed into a young woman (even her brother is seen stealing glimpses of her cleavage).
Eggers’ subtlety gets this point across, even as he lays out other potential suspects for the family to tear itself apart over. Is it really Caleb, who is already worried that his soul is going to hell, and who returns pretty changed from a trip to the woods? Is it the weird twins, who claim they can converse with a goat named Black Phillip? (Black Phillip, by the way, already has my vote as best new horror-movie character of the year. The intimidating, dark figure steals a number of scenes, and adds another element of “folk tale” to the proceedings, as Satan is often associated with goats in old stories.)
Aside from a few well-placed shock scares, Eggers does a masterful job in letting the horror build up among the family, and among us. If you like your scares to be of the type that slowly get under your skin and stay there, you’ll want to traverse the dark woods of The Witch.
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Director: Robert Eggers
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