Puritan New England Is Terrifying In “The Witch”

I’ve been hearing outstanding things about Robert Eggers’ The Witch since its Sundance Film Festival premiere last year. Eggers won the festival’s Best Director award, and the film was instantly picked up by the ever-growing A24 for release this year (this was due to their slate of films released in 2015, including the Oscar nominated Room). Everyone from Stephen King to the Satanic Temple has given the film their blessing. While it was almost impossible to wait that long given the hype preceding its release, I’m glad I finally caught up with the first great film of this year.

Set in 1630’s New England, the film focuses on a family who are banished from their community and forced to live in the secluded wood. Eggers frames the woods as a menacing, nefarious backdrop. Even as father William (Game of Throne’s Ralph Ineson) kneels in thanks to god when they decide on a plot of land to call ‘home,’ the creepy sound editing against the haunting forest suggests that this far from a good decision.

That foreshadowing is quickly confirmed soon after, when the family’s infant son Samuel goes missing during a game of peek-a-boo with eldest daughter Thomasin (a brilliant Anya Taylor-Joy). What follows is one of several, truly horrifying sequences featuring the titular Witch. But that’s all I’m going to say about that.

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The plot follows the family’s struggle to survive, and stay alive as their paranoia threatens to tear them apart, or worse. It’s very clear that Eggers, who also wrote the film, did his homework. He not only sets a menacing mood over the film, but captures a post-Salem Witch Trials world where Puritans were afraid of their own shadows. The dialogue is extremely accurate. In fact, most of it and the events in the film were lifted straight from official documents from the time period.

The film’s ensemble is great across the board. Katie Dickie (also from Game of Thrones), who plays the mother, has several standout scenes; she manages to convey sheer terror without relying on scenery chewing or histrionics. I found myself the most fascinated by Taylor-Joy, however, who truly runs the show. It’s not your typical star-making, debut performance, but it’s one that will hopefully earn her a lot of accolades as the year goes on.

Many will find themselves severely terrified by the gothic, dark images in the film; the film is every bit as horrifying as you’ve heard. The intricate sound editing keeps the audience on their toes; even when nothing happens, you’re prepared for the very worst. But Eggers’ focus is the family’s descent into madness, which is every bit as scary as the blood and gore. The less said about The Witch, the better. I’ve probably already said too much. But it’s not often that a film arrives that lives up to the hype bestowed upon it. The Witch is not just one of the best films of the year, but will go down as one of the best horror films of all time.

Just do yourself a favor, and get out and see it.

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Grade: A

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