It's 17th century New England, around 60 or so years before the Salem Witch Trials. Excommunicated and banished by the church from their small colonial settlement over a theological argument, English Puritan farmer William (Ineson) takes his family, his pregnant wife Katherine (Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Scrimshaw) and fraternal twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson) into the wilderness, intent on carving out a farm by the edge of an ominous, forbidding forest.
Months pass. William and the family have built a homestead, cleared and planted fields of corn. Katherine has given birth to a fifth child, Samuel, Thomasin has blossomed into a young woman and the adolescent Caleb is perhaps taking a less-than brotherly interest in her charms. But the family seems cursed, blighted by a malevolent presence emanating from the sinister darkness of the woods. The animals are restless, the unruly twins fascinated by the family’s billy goat Black Philip who they claim to be able to converse with. Starvation looms. The crops are failing, the animals produce blood not milk and William has been unable to trap game of any kind for the table. And while Thomasin is playing with the infant Samuel, the child disappears, carried off into the forest by someone or something.
As jealousy, desire, guilt and paranoia mounts, a collective hysteria falls over the farm, the grieving Katherine blaming the teenage Thomasin for Samuel’s loss while the twins accuse her of witchcraft, Katherine seizing on the accusation. William meanwhile is torn between his faith, his love of his daughter and his gnawing suspicion: could the God-fearing Thomasin really be a witch? When Caleb too goes missing, lost in the forest during an abortive hunting trip, and the elements themselves seem to conspire against them, the family descends into madness…
“Horror by definition is the emotion of pure revulsion. Terror of the same standard, is that of fearful anticipation.” – Dario Argento
Ever since its premiere at 2015’s Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Eggers' debut feature, The Witch: A New-England Folktale, has been dividing audiences and critics alike, splitting the horror fraternity. Mostly lacking in the mechanical, sensationalist, empty audience-pleasing jumps and frights that mainstream Hollywood has taught them to crave, there are those who will find The Witch boring, will argue it’s just not scary enough.
These people are wrong. Eggers fundamentally grasps that horror is not a genre but an emotion, that climactic little death of revulsion when our fears bear fruit, the natural end result of its sister emotion terror, the delicious, exquisite anticipation of the terrible. Evil is patient and Eggers makes us wait, denying us the easy gratification we've come to expect as our due.
But is The Witch a tale of the supernatural? Is the Devil really a malevolent force, tempting, torturing this poor family? Does a witch indeed lurk in the forest? Is she the naked, bestial hag we glimpse putting a pestle and mortar to nightmarish use? Or the siren seducing the unwary, literally and figuratively, from the path? Is she the ripening Thomasin, her blossoming sexuality a transgression that will no longer be stifled by the repression of God and family?
Or is The Witch herself an allegory, a manifestation of claustrophobic madness? Of an isolated family succumbing to cabin fever, embracing insanity… chaos? Is she the seed of religious intolerance and hysteria that just a few decades later will grip the Colonies, finding bloody apotheosis in Salem? Do the moist, increasingly vaginal, woods and the naked witches who may, may, dance there represent an escape from the oppression and strictures of patriarchal society that seeks to marginalise women? As with the best horror films, less is more, Eggers content to raise these questions and allow you to draw your own conclusions, eschewing the explicit, leaving the film open to the audience’s interpretation.
From it’s opening scenes, The Witch succeeds in instilling in its audience a sense of foreboding, a creeping, insidious dread that builds and grows to near hysterical levels, tapping into our darkest fears and superstitions, of our powerlessness in the face of the unknown, of God and the Devil, of unforgiving Nature. Of isolation, of madness, of our own desires and demons. Of female sexuality, unbound by God, Man or Society. Our fear of the deep, dark wood, of what lurks there in the shadows just beyond the campfire, hungry.
Hypnotic and deeply unsettling, The Witch nibbles and gnaws at you, working its way under your skin, a truly adult, arthouse horror movie riffing on The Shining and The Crucible by way of Ingmar Bergman at his most cloyingly claustrophobic, Eggers ably abetted by his supremely talented cast. While Dickie serves up another shot of her familiar brand of unhinged, as William, Ineson, the uncrowned king of UK voiceovers, brings a fiery sympathy to a weak and fearful man crippled by pride and self-doubt and young Scrimshaw shines as the conflicted Caleb, a boy trying to be a man, who also features in perhaps the best exorcism scene William Friedkin never shot. But the film belongs to the luminous Taylor-Joy, a revelation as Thomasin, delivering a raw, fiercely committed, instinctive performance that’s both nervy and assured as she discovers and embraces her womanhood.
Upsetting on a primal level, The Witch is a horror movie that will genuinely haunt you.