The Witch Movie Review
Written by Joel Harley
Released by Universal Pictures UK
Written and directed by Robert Eggers
2015, 92 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
Released on 11th March 2016
Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin
Ralph Ineson as William
Kate Dickie as Katherine
Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb
Ellie Grainger as Mercy
Lucas Dawson as Jonas
Banished from their strictly pious pilgrim settlement for being too strict and pious, a family set up home in a bleak New England wilderness, teetering on the cusp of a labyrinthine forest of terrors. Dwelling within that forest? The resident witch (or vvitch, if you want to be olde English about it), who steals the family’s newborn child and diligently gets to work utterly destroying William, Katherine and everything they hold dear.
It’s eldest daughter Thomasin who bears the brunt of it though, trying to hold everything together as her mother descends into hysteria, father refuses to acknowledge the danger they might be all in, and little brother keeps staring at her newly emergent boobs when he thinks nobody is looking. And that’s not to mention her weird twin siblings, conversing with goat Black Phillip, the film’s breakout star.
There’s no denying it – you’re either going to love or hate The Witch. It’s a film in which the actors speak nothing but authentic olde English, huddling in natural light and praying to God a lot. Either a lot happens or very little does, depending on how much you value propulsion of character over story, and it either is or isn’t a horror film, depending on whether there are enough scares in it for your taste. Most criticisms of the like being, frankly, ridiculous. If anything, The Witch is proof of how versatile and intelligent the horror can be without resorting to a single jump scare or nubile showering teenager (although I’m sure young Caleb would have liked the latter). Like the similarly loved and loathed The Babadook and It Follows, it’s a film perceived as too intelligent and unconventional to be a horror film – often by actual horror fans.
Well nuts to them; The Witch is a horror film through and through, and should be celebrated as one of the genre’s successes. From the start, it’s sublimely creepy, so committed to its 1630-something setting that it achieves a sense of ‘otherness’ which pervades throughout. The regional accents help the characters still seem relatable and real in spite of their olde English dialogue, the actors well-chosen and always believable. Even the children do well, and kids tend to be a personal pet hate of mine in horror films. Here, they’re sympathetic and creepy when they need to be – particularly twins Mercy and Jonas, dancing about the field singing and conversing with Black Phillip.
Challenging, unsettling and unpredictable, it’s the film The Village should have been – a version of A Field in England that’s even more committed to its period setting, and the first good witch horror film since, well, Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Walking out after that ending, it’s easy to see why some may dislike or even hate it, but I adored it. More than just a period story about a witch, it’s the destruction of a family unit, made all the more tragic by the characters’ obliviousness to the nature of their peril – revealed to the audience right from the start. As The Babadook was a painful exploration into a mother’s grief in the face of single parentdom, so The Witch is about far more than just a witch. Just ask poor dad William (an incredible Ralph Ineson, whose gravelly tones and angular features are perfectly suited to the role) whose pride and hypocrisy fly straight in the face of his religion, giving the film its loudest talking points. Its setting predates that, but the Salem Witch Trials loom heavy over the back half, the dread piling up as Thomasin’s family gradually turn against her. Just imagine what Matthew Hopkins would have made of this one.
All that, and some top-notch bona fide horror imagery too. Its woods reminiscent of Antichrist or a fully serious Evil Dead (the remake, then), fairy tale iconography and Black Phillip’s soulful, piercing eyes. To say more would be to spoil its very few moments of pure supernatural terror, but writer/director Robert Eggers never shies from the fact that his film, The Witch, is about an actual witch.
The Witch is a potent brew of supernatural horror, miserable family drama and coming of age trauma. Stirred together, it makes one of the most original – and, yes, infuriating – pieces of cinema in recent years. Love or loathe it, it’s utterly bewitching.