I cannot claim to be an aficionado of horror films, though I do appreciate a good scare and have fond childhood memories of the old Hammer Films and Universal monster movies. For me, a good horror movie should at least unnerve you and stay with you beyond the end credits. Sadly, “The Witch”, a Sundance darling from up-and-coming auteur Robert Eggers, fails to really horrify or disturb though it does succeed magnificently in presenting a realistic window into an uneasy period of American history.
From the first frame “The Witch” is told from the point of view of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the oldest daughter of a puritan family newly arrived in America from England in the early-1600’s. Thomasin’s father, William (Ralph Ineson), quits a secure pilgrim community in New England after a theological falling out with the town fathers and takes his family into the wilderness to found their own homestead and live by his own Christian convictions. The family is soon troubled by a witch that lives in the ominous forest bordering their little freehold. Slowly, frankly a little too slowly, the family unit unravels in fear and mistrust as sinister hardships befall them.
It should come as no surprise watching this film that Egger’s experience behind the camera has been predominantly in the art department. The costumes, props and sets all represent the hand-hewn 1600’s that is the setting with a truth rarely seen on film. Deeply atmospheric and period authentic, this film tried very hard to be a thinking person’s horror story. Robert Egger spent four years researching his “New England Folk Tale” before production began and his efforts certainly paid off, this film may fail as a truly frightening film yet it is palpable period drama.
Additionally, outstanding performances by Kate Dickie as Katherine, William’s lady wife and Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb the family’s adolescent oldest son, makes the genuine period dialogue work for a 21st century audience. We may not always fully understand what is being said by this family, but the emotions are always conveyed and it is in no way difficult to bond with these people. Fear of hell, God’s mercy and witches were all a part of everyday life in 1630, and this is flawlessly shown in the writing and performing of “The Witch”.
As I said, “The Witch” tried to be a thinking person’s horror film – even though it was not above the occasional jump cut/shock shot. The artwork, photography, evocative music by Mark Korven and Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting in particular were all well worth the price of admission. (Honestly, Miss Taylor-Joy’s talents all but carried this entire production from start to finish.) In the end, however, the obvious hard work here is undone by a too thoughtful pace a sheer lack of raw horror. The foreboding setting never truly pays off on a visceral level, even at the end when everyone’s worst fears are made delicious flesh. Walking out of the theatre I found the only reason I was still haunted by “The Witch” was I had to write this review.
The most bewitching thing about this film? Anya Taylor-Joy’s brown eyes.