The horror genre seldom gets anything fresh and revolutionary—until now. Robert Egger’s “The Witch,” a surprise hit from last year’s Sundance Film Festival, brings forth into an atmospheric world full of terror and paranoia that never cheapens itself with jump-scares or silly gimmicks.
Taking place less than a century before the infamous Salem Witch Trials, “The Witch” (officially endorsed by the Satanic Temple) plays on the same type of religious hysteria that would define colonial New England just a few decades later.
William (Ralph Ineson), a deeply religious man, leads his family with a booming, gravelly voice, which is difficult to understand at times. After leaving their settlement because of a disagreement about religious beliefs, William’s family finds an isolated patch of land deep in the forest and sets up a farm and a home, hoping to live in peace and prayer. Trouble soon rears its ugly head when, during a game of peek-a-boo, William’s newborn son, Samuel, disappears from under the eyes of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the oldest child in the family, and the main character of the film.
Filmed mostly in natural light, “The Witch” features exquisite cinematography. In terms of the horror genre, it surpasses the majority thanks to its hauntingly beautiful and mesmerizing shots that owe a lot to the great art-house films from Europe. With the imposing forest serving as a character in itself, Egger creates an antithesis to the Garden of Eden; a dark, twisted patch of earth where hardly an animal–or anything good–is seen. The landscape itself adds to the film’s Satanist undertones.
Owing a lot of its styles and themes to Ingmar Bergman, “The Witch” focuses on the famed Swedish director’s examination of faith and doubt in its conflicted characters. As the spiral into chaos ensues, the film relies more on implications and visuals than cheap scares that could be easily done by any budding filmmaker, but Egger—in his debut film no less—shows the mark of a true craftsman by never trying to get an unearned scare out of his audience.
The hysteria instilled near the beginning of the film grows with a slow, deliberate pace so that it fully pays off in a final act that is as chilling as anything I’ve seen in some time. Egger treats tension like he is starting a fire, handling it with care as he slowly nurtures and feeds the flame. He doesn’t try to blow on it or use anything unnatural to get it started, but uses the discordant score and eerie visuals to get the audience into an uneasy state of mind.
Some excellent performances, particularly by Ineson, Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie (Katherine, the mother) and Harvey Scrimshaw (Thomasin’s brother, Caleb) help the film’s tension build to a point of madness. Taylor-Joy gives far and away the most powerful performance as William’s daughter, who has all the blame fall on her as her family slowly becomes convinced that she is a witch. Weighing the doubting of herself with the care of her family, Thomasin is vastly more complex than most horror films would let her be, proving that women in horror are more than just scream queens running from serial killers.
Horror fans might soon be calling this film one of their favorites—it really is a phenomenal film from a first-time director. Thanks to its unnerving, isolated setting, bone-chilling cinematography, and a spine-tingling climax, “The Witch” sets itself aside from most—if not all—horror films of the 21st century as it shows true mastery in the realm of filmmaking. Hopefully, unlike other movies, this one will remain a one-off as it buries itself under your skin and creeps its way into the upper echelon of the horror genre.
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