The Witch is the best horror film you’re likely to see this year, an unsettling tale of witchcraft and family breakdown in 1630 New England which gets top marks for period detail and music, natural acting and organic scares. While it provokes flashbacks to The Blair Witch Project, The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now, the film casts its own original spell.
Writer-director Robert Eggers has said that he exorcised his own witch nightmares by making his first film. He might just have passed them on to his audience.
It took four years of meticulous research to create the impressive authenticity on show here: Eggers met 17th Century agricultural experts and colonial historians; he studied contemporary religious diaries, letters and Puritan prayer manuals, often using bits of dialogue for his script. Costumes were made from antique hand-woven cloth, musical instruments from the 1600s were used for the soundtrack and the film was mostly shot with natural and candle-light.
This attention to detail adds depth to the psychological family drama and a vivid backdrop to the wonderfully natural performances by the British cast, who speak ‘olde Englishe’ with no trace of awkwardness. Thomasin (AnyaTaylor-Joy) becomes the film’s focal point; as the older daughter on the cusp of womanhood, she is most sensitive to the dark forces at work, and struggles with her passionate, rebellious feelings.
At the start of The Witch her family are banished from their plantation home because William (Ralph Ineson) has religious differences with his Puritan brethren, and they set up a tiny farm on the edge of a wood. One day Thomasin is playing Peek-a-boo with baby Sam when he vanishes in the blink of an eye, stolen by a witch. To avoid any audience doubt, we see a red-caped figure carrying a bundle into the darkening wood back to a gloomy lair, where we catch glimpses of the witch’s sagging flesh and hanging hair as she prepares for some unspeakable act.
Soon everything falls apart. The family turn on each other and their religious faith falters, as they fall prey to the devilish forces at work. Their crops fail and the finger of suspicion points at Thomasin, who has pretented to her younger brother and sister that she is a witch. As a prelude to each calamity, the witch appears in shape-shifted form – as a hare, a crow, or a beautiful woman. Meanwhile the youngsters cavort around the farmyard with their goat, Black Philip, chanting ‘clickety-clackety, I be the witch of the wood, come to steal this child’.
An atmosphere of dread permeates The Witch from the outset, much of it generated by a spooky, creaky, out-of-tune soundtrack that brings to mind the chaotic orchestral crescendo in the middle of The Beatles’ Day in the Life, as well as Kate Bush’s song, The Witch. The film builds, via a disturbing demonic possession, to a shattering finale.