The Witch

Posted: March 17, 2016 in Film reviews, horror
Tags: , ,

Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie.

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In 17th Century New England a man named William (Ineson) is sent into exile after disagreement with the religious leaders of the Puritan plantation that he and his family have been living at. William sets off with his wife Katherine (Dickie) his daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) son Caleb, and young twins Mercy and Jonas. They locate a patch of land close to some woods and build a farmhouse there. After a while Katherine gives birth to a fifth child, Samuel.

One day Thomasin is playing with the baby when Samuel vanishes. William blames the child’s loss on wolves, but several within the family believe the baby was taken by a witch. As time passes and blight strikes their crops, hunger and paranoia see the notion that the family is cursed grow. But who is to blame? Is it Thomasin, whose own pubescence causes issues, or is it the twins who converse with one of the family’s goats, Black Phillip, or could it be that there is an external cause, a malevolent force living deep in the darkened woods?

And so Robert Eggers writing and directorial debut arrives trailing plaudits and awards from the Sundance film festival and cloaked in an advertising campaign that perhaps doesn’t do it any favours, emphasising the horror elements without necessarily preparing viewers for what they’re going to see.

I’ve heard reports of people walking out or being very unhappy when the lights came up. This isn’t to suggest The Witch is an especially nasty film, it’s not (or at least no worse than most other horror films) but it isn’t quite the film it’s billed as (which isn’t any kind of fault of the film makers). I knew little about the film but I was at least prepared for what kind of film it is.

The first thing to say is that there’s a lot to like about The Witch. The second thing to say is that it’s a hard film to like. If those two things seem at odds with one another, well I’m sorry but that’s just how it is.

First the good. The film features a truly terrifying soundtrack that’s unsettling on its own, let alone when you play it over brooding shots of deep dark woods. Eggers chose his location well, and the woods are practically a character in themselves; unsettling even when only seen in the background.

The small cast do a good job all round, even the two youngsters playing the twins who are wonderfully annoying. Harvey Scrimshaw is good as the conflicted Caleb, troubled by his own perceived sin and terrified that he’s going to go to hell, and Ineson and Dickie bring all of their experience to bear as the puritan parents, who love their children yet are hamstrung by their own religious paranoia. The standout however is Taylor-Joy who, going on this evidence, is going to have a very successful career. She’s perfect as the poor benighted Thomasin, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood struggling to find her place in the world and haunted by the loss of her baby brother while she was supposed to be watching him. Remove her and the film wouldn’t work half as well.

Eggers and his crew have also recreated 17th Century New England and its people to perfection, even going as far as to draw on historical sources for the dialogue.

Unfortunately the authentic period setting and dialogue works as much against the film as for it. At times this world seems a little impenetrable, and in particular the language makes it hard to truly engage with. It’s a slow burn of a film as well, and because it’s played so completely straight, at times it treads a very fine line (as horror often does) between what is frightening, and what is ludicrous, and there are certain elements, like the hare and Black Phillip, that are liable to make some audience members laugh rather than scream.

When it works though the film is genuinely unsettling and I do plan to watch it again on the small screen where its effect may well be magnified. It is be lauded for trying to do something a little bit different and it does make a pleasant change from most modern horror, but sadly, at least on first viewing, I have to be honest and say that I didn’t like it anywhere near as much as I expected to.

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