The Witch (2015) is a primal horror film rooted in fear and superstition, and there is no shortage of either in early 17th century New England, where a devout Puritan father has taken his family to start a new life. Adding to the general hardship of British village folk carving a new colony out of a frontier of deep forests an ocean away from their European birthplace, this family is banished from the protected village. The religious devotion of pious father William (Ralph Ineson) is so absolute that he challenges the elders and refuses to repent. The irony that this sect left England to escape religious persecution is lost on them all, but then it’s not really what the film is about.
“We will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us,” William proclaims as they march away from the last outpost of European civilization in their world. He is pious, yes, but he’s also devoted to his family, protective and even loving in his emotionally restrained way, and he creates a home at the edge of a forest that seems to grow darker and more ominous with each calamity. The crops don’t just fail, they turn black as if cursed. The adorable goats turn aggressive and their bleets and baas begin to sound ominous. Then an infant disappears in an innocent game of peekaboo played by apple-cheeked Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the family’s eldest daughter. It’s simply gone with no earthly explanation, at least not as experienced through their perspective. The isolation takes its toll on the homesick mother (Kate Dickie), who becomes increasingly drawn and disconnected as she pines for her English life, and failing crops and dying livestock send Father and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) deeper and deeper into the forest for food. It turns a tough, trying existence into the trials of Job reimagined as a horror movie. Or perhaps a Grimm fairy tale. The film is, after all, subtitled “A New England Folktale.”
Thomasin is coming of age, as they say, becoming a young woman and given more family responsibility without accompanying respect. Sexuality is very much a presence here, though it is never talked about or acted upon, which makes even thinking about it something shameful to be repressed. Clearly these kids won’t be getting the sex talk.
Filmmaker Robert Eggers drew upon journals and other records of the era for his screenplay, which gives the archaic language a quality both alien and organic, and painstaking recreates the texture of their world, from the heavy, rough clothing to the Spartan home. He shoots with natural light, which makes the shadowy interiors of the rough-hewn cabin of a home gloomy even in daylight and reduced to pools of visibility at night with only candles and lamps to light the rooms. Set against that realism are visions of a forest witch preying upon the vulnerable family (real or simply the nightmares of a family clutching for explanations?) and the creepy games of the young children, who taunt Thomason with nursery rhyme curses and name the family goat Black William and proclaim it a demon. In a world where the devil is every bit as real as God, it gets under the skin of the characters. And the audience too.
The horrors are very real, just not necessarily literal, and the film suffered a backlash from a contingency of horror fans reacting to rave reviews with complaints that it wasn’t scary. And if you’re looking for more traditional shocks or scares, this isn’t going to deliver. This is more ambiguous and all the more compelling for it. It’s not easily dismissed after the credits roll. It’s dark and spooky and suggestive and at times genuinely terrifying, and it leaves you wondering just how much belief guides our perceptions.
It won the directing award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and awards for best first feature and best first screenplay at the Film Independent Spirit Awards
Kanopy is available through most public library systems.
Also on DVD and Blu-ray with director commentary, a featurette, and a panel Q&A on the Salem Witch trials. The Blu-ray also features a bonus Ultraviolent Digital HD copy of the film.
The Witch [DVD + Digital]
The Witch [Blu-ray + Digital HD]