The general approach used by many current horror filmmakers is to create as many startles as possible, either through an instantaneous ramping up of sound or having things pop out of the darkness. Those kinds of films are like carnival rides, in that as soon as they end, the scares are gone.
“The Witch” is the kind of movie that works more on the psychology of terror, which is why it will haunt you long after the film ends.
Director Robert Eggers carefully sets up a scary situation, fans the flames of horror with fears based on sexuality and ignorance, and caps it off with an ending that leaves viewers questioning whether what happened was real or just the shattered mind of a young woman. That’s the stuff of which lingering scares are made.
It’s New England in the 1630s. Because of his religious teachings, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished from the sanctity of the small walled town that they have called home. They build a new home a day’s ride away.
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Their lives are thrown into turmoil when the oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), allows her baby brother to be taken. It’s an event that happens in a split second, but the family accepts a reason they can understand: The child was taken by a wolf into the haunting woods behind their home.
This is the start of a series of tragedies that can’t be explained in any reasonable way. The family is soon torn apart by fears that one among them is a witch.
Eggers, who also wrote the film, relies heavily on the natural concerns of sin that exist in this heavily religious time and place. The results of young lust, disobedience, doubt, religious confusion and lying all manifest themselves in the evil that envelops this family.
Director Robert Eggers has shot the movie in a place that is as dark and foreboding as the despair that grows like a cancer in this family.
Their battle with darkness is magnified by the isolated feelings that come with being in a new country, separated from friends and forced to survive without any promise of tomorrow. Eggers has shot the movie in a place that is as dark and foreboding as the despair that grows like a cancer in this family.
The cast adds to the fear factor, especially through Taylor-Joy, who has an angelic face, making the persecution and rejection she feels come across all the more bitter.
Both Ineson and Kate Dickie, who plays his wife, have the haggard looks of people who once embraced the potential of a new life, only to see it turn into a living nightmare. Even newcomer Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays the oldest son, manages to convey the confusion of living in such a barren world during his first embraces of puberty.
The biggest fumble by Eggers is in his decision to use dialogue taken directly from writings and journals of the time. Some of the lines in the script are confusing because of the dialects. That’s not a major flaw because so much of “The Witch” is sold by the eerie setting, a spine-tightening soundtrack and the expressive faces of the cast.
“The Witch” has its bloody moments, but it isn’t the kind of movie that depends on buckets of blood to be chilling. Its haunting effect comes from how Eggers uses this family as a vessel for serving up a fear that rests in the netherworld between reality and the unchained mind.