by Coop Cooper
The story begins in 17th century America as Puritan settlers William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), disillusioned with their community for its lack of piety, abandon their protected village to build a homestead in the deep wilderness on the edge of an ominous forest. They drag along their newborn son, out-of-control twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson), sensitive preteen son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and alluring teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). When the newborn mysteriously goes missing under Thomasin’s watch, the family begins to unravel as they are plagued by menacing and unexplainable occurrences. When the suspicion of witchcraft arises, Thomasin becomes the prime suspect. As the threat puts all members of the family in peril, Thomasin must choose between survival and damnation.
“The Witch” could have easily become a smaller-scale version of “The Crucible” and it would have succeeded in doing so, but the film’s true agenda lies in both its title and final statement in the closing credits. “The Witch: A New England Folktale” is the full official title of the film and it is meant to clarify the movie’s intent. One could watch the first half of the movie and find all of the allegories and metaphors you would expect in a story about dangers of extreme religious dogma and isolation and one could connect them to current events, modern themes, etc… But the purpose of this film is much more simple in that, and when the narrative finally shows its cards and reveals what the film is actually about, the audience is left to deal with a horrific, yet beautifully done ending that leaves goosebumps once the screen goes dark.
Every aspect of the production feels authentic. From the thatched-roof cottages to the clothing and the dialects, nothing felt out-of-place or false within the context of a 17th century world. The performances were perfection all the way around. Ralph Ineson comes across as stern and uncompromising at the beginning as a father willing to sacrifice the safety of his family over a theology disagreement, but as the story progresses we can see how much he loves his family and how tormented he becomes once he realizes his prideful sin. Kate Dickie plays a role similar to her spiteful and weak-willed Lysa Arryn character in “Game of Thrones”, but her motives feel realistic when she crumbles after her baby is stolen away. Towards the end, her performance becomes genuinely both creepy and tragic.
The performances to savor in this film come from the children. Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson play the instantly hatable twins who not only seem to suffer from severe ADHD, but delight in making a game out of accusing their older sister of witchcraft. Harvey Scrimshaw is responsible for one of the most harrowing and sad scenes in the movie as a child in the throes of a terrible fever dream which could be a result of demonic possession. The true find of the film is Anya Taylor-Joy who seems to drift between childhood and womanhood with ease as she navigates through one horrible situation to the next. By the end, she is so broken and has lost so much, we almost don’t blame her for playing into the trap that has been set. Her performance was so impressive, I felt like I was watching a star in the making. Looking forward to seeing her in more films to come. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the most memorable cast member ‘Black Phillip’ which is a horned goat and a pet of the family who is blamed for many of the strange events that happen in the film.
The film also draws inspiration from sources other than “The Crucible”. I saw shades of “The Shining” in it as well as Michael Haneke’s disturbing film “The Seventh Continent” and his Oscar-winning feature “The White Ribbon”. The movie most closely resembles Lars Von Trier’s insufferably pretentious and graphic horror film “Antichrist”, but where that movie fails miserably, this one succeeds brilliantly. Before the credits roll, we learn the true inspirations for “The Witch” were the publications printed during the 17th century which detail supposed true accounts of families destroyed by people seduced into pacts with the devil. The chilling reality of these publications was that they fueled the hysteria behind the witch hunts of that era, culminating in the infamous Salem witch trials and executions.
“The Witch” will undoubtedly end up on my Top 10 of the year list as one of the best horror films in recent memory. Having said that, the film is not for everyone, not even some horror fans. It’s a slow burn of tension and dread that builds steadily with very few jump scares. The film is made to make you feel uneasy throughout and when the shocking moments actually happen, its much more potent than watching a teenage run from a machete-wielding maniac every five minutes. There are some shots where it takes you a few seconds to register what you are actually seeing and when/if you do figure it out, your stomach drops because of it. There is no remedial horror here, it is the craft at the top of its game. If you want jump scares, see “The Forest”. If you want the real McCoy, “The Witch” is now available in theaters.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars