Review: THE WITCH (2015){0}

“One of the most captivating and thought-provoking horror films of the past ten years”

You have to love a horror film that takes its scares seriously. No comic relief, no wise-ass supporting characters, and nothing in the way of respite from an overall sense of doom, gloom, and old-school chills. There’s no shortage of tongue-in-cheek, witty, or plain old silly horror films out there, so it’s more than a little refreshing to come across a grim, challenging, and generally downbeat horror story – but none of that really matters all that much if the film isn’t particularly new, novel, or memorable. Fortunately for all involved – especially the viewer – the masterful new indie chiller called The Witch may re-ignite your faith in stone-faced, sobering, and disconcertingly sincere horror films.

The setting is 1630 New England. We open with a particularly pious family that is being banished from their village for various vague-yet-ominous reasons. William (Ralph Ineson) amd Katherine (Kate Dickie) pack all their belongings (and their five kids) onto a ramshackle wagon and head out to brave the brutal wilderness. The family finally takes root on an unforgiving patch of land that rests on the edge of a thick forest – and it doesn’t take long before all sorts of seriously creepy stuff starts happening.

So it all sounds pretty simple and straightforward, right? Evil forest + clueless family = easy scares! Fortunately that is not the case at all. Despite a plainly linear story structure, The Witch is a remarkably novel and challenging horror film. The dialogue, for example, is delivered in full-bore “Olde English” fashion, which forces the viewer to play close attention to some difficult exchanges if they want to keep up with the story – and there’s nothing like a big, fat dosage of old-school authenticity to give your creepy period piece some dramatic heft. That’s not to say that The Witch is tough to follow; more that it’s the most attentive viewers who’ll get the most out of Robert Eggers’ deviously clever screenplay.

The two leads – both of whom you may recognize from Game of Thrones – are nothing short of flawless, especially when one considers the sort of material they’re working with. (There are endless ways in which an offbeat period piece horror story can devolve into unintentional camp; The Witch never does, and these two actors deserve a lot of the credit for that.) Equally impressive is Anya Taylor-Joy as eldest daughter Thomasin; even the little kids, often a weakness in even the best of movies, are almost eerily on point as The Witch gradually transforms from a bleak piece of melodrama to a darkly disturbing religious thriller.

As a director, Mr. Eggers earns equally high praise: The Witch may mark his first time directing a feature, but his experience as a production/costume designer is evident throughout all of his directorial debut. Not only does he pay close attention to the accuracy of the film’s visual palette; he also pulled most of the film’s scariest events from historical documents. So not only do you get an endlessly creepy campfire tale about a family who sure as hell seems to be cursed by a local witch; you also get a fascinating glimpse into the societal mindset of 1630s New England. Whether or not something supernatural ever took place is, of course, up for debate, but the ways in which these scared, ignorant humans deal with things they don’t understand make for one of the most captivating and thought-provoking horror films of the past ten years.

Frankly I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a horror film quite like The Witch.