The Witch review

Acclaimed horror The Witch arrives in UK cinemas this week. But is it any good?

Even more than usual, you get no spoilers here. Good horror movies are scarce, and The Witch deserves being seen with as little fanfare as possible. It’s very different from the current crop of big screen horror – which has, in turn, led to a very split response in America. But it feels and is fresh. And it’s a fascinating piece of cinema. 

Plot is not always foremost on filmmakers’ agendas when it comes to horror. And while many horror films set aside plot to make room for splatter, they don’t give much attention to themes either. Themes, however, take centre stage in Robert Eggers’ painstakingly recreated 17th century New England Puritan setting − and themes are what will engage and scare you in The Witch, or at the very least set the stage right for the genuine scares the movie offers.

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Sets, costumes, use of minimal lighting and colours, the performances of a committed cast and well-researched period language (that is at times almost surrealist) all blend together to create an immersive and convincing reproduction of 17th century puritan lifestyle. We’ve had our share of pseudo-historical pieces that butchered period language in a vain attempt at authenticity, but the talent − of both the actors and scriptwriter − in The Witch makes it sound refreshingly convincing, though it does in turn move the film a good deal away from the mainstream.

The Witch introduces us to puritan family man William (Ralph Ineson) as he choses banishment following a clash of religious ideology during a conversation with the plantation leaders. Williams leaves the village with his acerbic wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), his eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the verge of adolescence son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the annoying twins Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) and unbaptized baby Sam.

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The family in exile goes on to exploit a farm that does not produce, living a life of religious fundamentalism on the outskirts of a dark forest. The forest looms, dark, foreboding and chilling − worthy of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The forest alone will cause The Witch to be compared with M Night Shyamalan’s The Village, but the comparison needs to end there.

The forest, giving nothing beyond the start of the movie away, soon gets to live up to its ominous appearance. One day, Thomasin is playing peekaboo with baby Sam by the water, close to the forest’s edge. Between two peekaboos, Sam disappears. From that moment on (despite a few brief glimpses of the supernatural, which might as well have been dreamt up by any of the family members), you’re left wondering if there are dark forces at work or if this is just an essay on how fundamentalist values an isolation can plunge a community into religious hysteria. Director Eggers’ environment is so convincing and accurately depicted, that it sets up how the infamous Salem Witch trials (that would take place a few decades later) could actually happen under such fundamentalist rules.

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The classic scares are few, and Eggers is careful at what he lets us see, and when he lets us see it. The Witch turns into a very faithful reenactment of 17th century puritan ideology fueling a slow-burning descent into madness, and a strong early period tale of the supernatural.

The Witch, again, will not appeal to everyone, certainly not to all horror fans, but it might also appeal to moviegoers who don’t usually go for horror. It may not end up being a smash box office hit, but I see it very well leading the way for a revival of the supernatural genre. With the cancellation of Constantine on television last year, it’s become painfully obvious that, even with the increasing popularity of genre fiction on both television screens and movie screens, supernatural fantasy has had a hard time earning the interest of viewers still fascinated with zombies and superheroes.

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For everyone else though, The Witch will be a very refreshing change. It lacks the fast pace and sheer, immediate (or gratuitous) shocks, scares and gore of typical Hollywood horror blockbusters, but it might just surprise and delight movie fans looking for something more than what’s out there at the moment.

The Witch is in UK cinemas from March 11th

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