The Witch (2016)
There’s nothing better than a new genre to get the mob’s dulled pitchforks and smoldering braziers in a howling twist. The latest addition to the paddock of pandemonium is ‘art-house horror’, as certain genre commentators have branded a loose cabal of recent features such as It Follows, The Babdadook and Goodnight Mommy. I was invited to a press screening of the latter but alas I couldn’t make it, but I did leap onto my broomstick to see The Witch, last year’s Sundance smash which netted itself a best director award for newcomer Robert Eggers. Labeling these pictures as ‘art-house’ in an implied derogatory fashion seems a little lazy to me. Just because a film doesn’t have a parade of semi-naked adolescents being butchered by machete wielding psychopaths and instead opts for some queasy commentary lurking under the shrieks doesn’t mean its instantly consigned to the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, and occupy some pretentious affectation like a somber Bela Tarr or Carlos Reygadas picture. As a rabid horror aficionado I warmly welcome a change of pace to the so-called cattle prod cinema / found footage strain of screams which has dominated the circuit since Paranormal Activity opened in 2007, which alongside Insidious, The Conjuring and all those Platinum Dunes & Blumhouse Pictures productions have warped into the most predictable and lazy cosmology of horror since the Halloween, Friday 13th and Nightmare On Elm Street sequels back in the 1980’s,except at least those pictures actually delivered the slithering viscera and weren’t rated a family friendly PG13. For me littering your film with screeching asides and clumsy jump scares deflects from the central tenant of genuine, squirming cinema – is it fucking scary? Do they make you feel uncomfortable and queasy, does it quicken the pulse and hackle the hairs when you’re watching them? In the case of The Witch I can unequivocally assert yes…….(whispers) oh yes……
Late 17th century, the New World, and a charcoal gray sky hangs solemnly over the spine-tingling proceedings. In New England a gruff man named William (Ralph Ineson, best known as Finchy from The Office) is banished from a burgeoning colony, his crime being too penitent and righteous to tolerate the orders and instructions of the village elders in the place of god – this family is too zealous even for the puritans. With his family in thrall — wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) — the exiles eventually alight on a barren patch of wasteland, a new home abutting the edge of a deep and sinister forest. With the crop failing and autumn fading to winter the family feel under the glamor of an existential curse, a malison which turns to murder when Thomasin’s playful game of peek-a-boo with her baby brother Samuel sees the baby spirited away, with either a crafty predator or some unknown and malignant force responsible for the abduction. Suspicions abound as fear blossoms among the family, secrets are harboured and motives veiled, as it seems that even a sinless infant is not safe from the world’s wrath. I’ll say little more for fear of spoilers, but after Samuel vanishes the thumbscrews tighten in a fully immersive and richly realized historical world, oozing with sexual dread, menstrual exile and occult scripture…..
It’s rare to enjoy such a formidable, controlled and confident debut, but director Robert Eggers four to five year of research and preparation have paid off with this disturbing and delirium drenched debut. He is clearly an adherent to the old-school ‘less is more’ approach to abominable antics, leaving your imagination to horrifyingly fill in the blanks between menacing imagery that your mind can’t quite process, glimpses and half scurried visions of the unholy which ruthlessly garrottes the fear gland. The fidelity to costume design and setting is to be applauded for what I assume to be a miniscule budget, the Jacobean dialogue culled from era specific artefacts, tomes and codex which really puts the spell on a saturated mood of saturnine gloom. Someone has clearly been chugging on The Shining elixir with the atonal sound and chittering spirits assaulting the eardrums, with long fades to black operating as efficient editing punctuation marks which charge a tempo of slow, uncoiling dread. That Kubrick lore also feeds into the natural lit interiors, the devotion to the vernacular and argot of the era and like The Shining (Eggers is on the record as this film being a central inspiration by the way) The Witch is all about an aura of seething incorporeal terror, of shadowed threats lurking in the petrified purlieus of the imagination, before illustrating those fears with blood curdling tableaus that had me grinning like a gorgeously blooded maniac. The performances are note perfect and completely convincing, even comedy connoisseurs will find memories of Finchy swiftly dispelled as the storm clouds gather, and newcomer Anya marks her debut with a frenzied flurry. With the plunge into religious mania the film shifts influences from British folk horror classics like Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man to more recent fare such as Wheatley’s Kill List and its sinister sister The Blair Witch Project, with even Von Trier’s Antichrist, Rosemary’s Baby and Ken Russell’s The Devils leaving their entrail soaked trail, particularly with the latter’s psycho-sexual marriage of mania and the macabre.
At an economic 90 minutes The Witch is a pinnacle of spine-tingling economy, like a well curated chiller murmured over a flickering campfire as the embers smoulder and the shadows creep in. The obsidian goat Black Philip is already this year’s Doof Warrior in terms of GIF’s and memes, in that amusing way that certain movie elements capture (or in this case curdle) the imagination of their audience. I’ll remain vague but I admired how ahead of the characters we are in terms of story information that slithers from Eggers seething script, it’s an interesting and definitive choice to be so up-front and bold where ambiguity could have better served the genre paradigms, so it’s a slight shame that some of the dialogue is difficult to decipher in a sound mix which has caused some grumbles of discontent. These fears are obscured by the fairy tale imagery which is potently charged, from the apple of sin to animals invested with a sinister intelligence and agency, to simply not going into the deep dark woods as something….something is lurking out there and it might be….hungry. Having slept on it I’m not entirely sure The Witch will linger or indeed malinger like some of those touchstones listed above, a second and subsequent viewing is essential to decouple some of the films deeper traits and designs, at the moment the impression is of a fine synthesis of previous terrifying triumphs rather than managing to forge its own unique path to something freshly frightening. Nevertheless this is a satisfying shriek of art house dread, a churning cauldron of sound design, economical camera work and period detail which scratches and claws at the permeable barriers between worlds, faith and fear, before levitating to the heights of glorious damnation. If Tim Burton hadn’t sold his soul to the studios and distilled his gothic vision into pointless and uninspired remakes this might have been the quality work he’d be churning out today, for the Menagerie it’s the first blood-streaked candidate in the coven for film of the year;