The problem with horror films nowadays is that we’ve seen it all before.
It’s hard to be scared of something when you’ve become so desensitised to horror that the sight of Charlotte Gainsbourg self-mutilating in that scene in Antichrist barely elicits more than a croak. Horror as a genre has now, by this point, been around the block so many times that it’s become increasingly hard in recent years for the emergence of original idea in such an over-worked creative space.
Enter Robert Eggers; a first-time director who, after finding pitches for a succession of ‘weird and obscure’ films, had the idea that maybe he was better off making a more conventional horror film. And in a way, The Witch reads like the most conventional horror film in the world; a malevolent supernatural presence hunting down a nuclear family one-by-one in an isolated location. That’s it. The horror genre in one of its most successful and endearing forms, boiled down to its bare bones. In many ways, its horror stock.
The Witch is not a flashy horror film, and it’s main prerogative is not to show you scare after scare and shock after shock until your beaten into submission. It’s a film that’s soaked into the lore of the horror genre – literally sub-titled as being a ‘New England Folk-Tale’ – and relishes its bare-bones setting, thrives in it.
Set in 17th century New England, the film was actually shot on location in Canada and the sparse, almost dystopian woodland location makes for an intoxicating and immediately claustrophobic experience. The colour palette for The Witch is stark and naturalistic; much like Alejandro Ińárritu exercised in The Revenant, Eggers shot the film using mostly natural lighting and, for the interiors, used little more than candlelight. So, we’re invited into a world that is both narratively and cinematically intimate, a dark little space in a dark little world that completely consumes you and won’t let go, even after the film has ended.
On first viewing, the most immediate draw of the film is that there’s no dilly-dallying about in terms of whether the titular spook actually exists. Within the first ten minutes, the family’s new-born baby, Samuel, is quickly spirited away into the deep, dark woods by the aforementioned Big Bad and quickly made mince meat of. I can’t remember a single horror movie in the past decade or so that so openly and brazenly showed their trump card within the opening ten minutes. This, of course, means that the audience is left with no qualms about whether the family are going mad; both Mother and Father thinking their daughter Thomasin – bourgeoning on the verge of womanhood and rebellion against the oppressive smothering of her family’s faith – is indeed responsible for the strange goings on around them. This turns out to be Eggers’ masterstroke; resulting in a whipped up sense of urgency to the proceedings.
Taking inspiration from Carter and Kubrick, Eggers keeps his camera shots controlled and concise, he frames most of the action in tight close-ups, and is not afraid to hold his gaze for just that bit too long. You find yourself jumping up and down in your seat, waiting for something to happen. But it never does, of course. Not until the positively Grand Guignol-esque conclusion. Both Mother and Father thinking their daughter Thomasin – bourgeoning on the verge of womanhood and rebellion against the oppressive smothering of her family’s faith – is indeed responsible for the strange goings on around them.
At its heart, The Witch is a film about family and about faith. It concerns a nuclear family whose core is rotting from the outside in. The father has allowed his faith (but, above all, his pride) to extradite them from their community and the mother’s suspicions of Thomasin quickly turn sour and venomous as she struggles to relate the events around her with a darker power than that in which she believes most totally. Were it not for the rampant witch running wild or the literal devil hiding in plain sight, Eggers’ film would also function as an equally tense and emotionally satisfying deconstruction of a family destroyed by their inner feelings, in a time when these feelings couldn’t be expressed for fear of retribution.
But, that being said, the layers of the film aside, what Eggers has presented to his audience is a horror film, and it works extraordinary well taken at face value. The witch does exist, it turns out the black goat really is the Devil in disguise and yes, Thomasin just can’t help but be tempted by darkness once it is presented to her.
The Witch is not just the best horror film of this year – or, indeed, the last few years – it is also the most honest. Eggers wears his heart and his influences on his sleeve; we owe as much to Halloween and The Shining as we do the emotionally brutal and honest work of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. In a world full of genre-flicks that are made almost by committee, The Witch was brave enough to show its openly beating black heart. And it was glorious to watch.
Words by George Griffiths