TIFF15: The Witch

The Witch is something special. If one were to divide good horror movies between those that involve an intelligent engagement with a traditional subject (such as ghosts, vampires, or in this case, witches) and those that find and exploit a new of area of experience (such as the evil home movies in Sinister), The Witch falls entirely into the former category. There is nothing new about this tale of a witch in the woods in seventeenth-century New England. But therein lies its originality.

Just as Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella earlier this year was refreshing for its faithful, straightforward rendition of an old fairy tale, The Witch is exceptional for its thoughtful engagement with the folklore about witches. This means that some of the material is a part of our inherited understanding of witches today—there are familiar spirits, pacts with the devil, and even broomsticks in the film—but the subtle presentation and the attention to historical detail revitalizes the old conventions.

Writer-director Robert Eggers has done his research. After the film, he said that he spent two years researching the movie, and the cast and crew members attested to receiving notes hundreds of pages long detailing everything from building materials and fabrics to language and beliefs. This is a sustained exploration of the early modern conception of witches, and while it addresses the mania about witches, this isn’t a movie about witch hunts in the spirit of The Crucible. The film essentially considers, what if some of these stories were true? What if there were a witch out in the woods, preying on the souls of an isolated family?

In this “New England Folk Tale,” young Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her parents (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie) and siblings (Harvey Scrimshaw, Lucas Dawson, and Ellie Grainger) have moved off the New England plantation for religious reasons. Leaving England for the New World was apparently not enough for her father, and he has chosen to leave the community rather than “sully” his version of the gospel. Now they eke out a hard living in a farm clearing near the vast, wild American forest.

The film is very good at understanding the religious mindset of those who left England for the New World during the seventeenth century. It points to how the Puritan understanding of the world as divided between a godly few and the vast conspiracy of the wicked helped fuel the fear of evil witches in league with Satan. In a way, the characters’ religious obsession with corruption and sin almost begets the existence of the witch, whose presence in turn confirms their obsession. In the film, the obsession with evil empowers it.

Did I mention the film is also scary? This is due in large part to the filmmaking, which is exceptional for a first feature film. Eggers draws on two established approaches to horror filmmaking, and uses both effectively. He uses the sustained long take of characters’ reactions, which can then be broken up to show the creepy things witnessed or for shock cuts. It’s the Kuleshov effect put to good use. Secondly, he uses the idea of limiting our view of the monster. We see the witch, but only in half light, the horrible things she does largely implied or half-concealed. This is measured and assured filmmaking, reminding me of M. Night Shyamalan in his prime.

An early scene is a great example of the film’s effectiveness. Thomasin takes her baby brother out into the field to play peekaboo. We get a shot of the girl covering her eyes, then a shot of the baby, then the girl opening her hands, and the baby reacting. The pattern is established and we know—and dread—where this is going. All of a sudden the baby is gone! Thomasin looks but can’t find him in the woods. Then we see the naked child in the dark light of a fire, and something, or someone, comes into frame out of focus, looming over the child. A blade is raised. Next an obscured shot of a naked old woman pounding something, then covering her wooden staff and body in blood. Chilling choral voices and the string-heavy score reach a crescendo as a black unfocused mass rises before a full moon. This is just one example of how The Witch revitalizes the conventions of witch-lore for chilling effect.

9 out of 10

The Witch (Canada/USA)

Written and directed by Robert Eggers; starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Lucas Dawson, Ellie Grainger, and Bathsheba Garnett.