It’s rare that a horror film can show me something I’ve never seen before, but by the time The Witch’s titular character grinds an infant into bloody broomstick fuel, I was already certain that Robert Eggers’ haunting debut feature was going to bombard me with imagery even my imagination’s darkest impulses couldn’t conjure. Thankfully, The Witch has much more to offer than nightmare fuel – which is plentiful. It’s also a morbid take on the coming-of-age genre, a cannily detailed character piece, and, above all else, a tremendous declaration of voice for one of horror cinema’s most promising new directors.
Set in New England decades before the Salem witch trials, The Witch follows a family that’s exiled from their compound into the wilderness beyond. Patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) leads them to a small patch of land, but their attempts to settle there are derailed when something in the woods snatches the family infant away while oldest sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is playing with him. With Thomasin facing the scorn of her mother (Kate Dickie) for losing her infant brother, the family begins to self-destruct in ways both wholly natural and chillingly supernatural.
Despite its horror trappings, The Witch works best as a macabre coming-of-age story, following Thomasin as the loss of her brother and her disillusionment with her stubborn, scornful parents send her reeling into adulthood. The film boasts an intelligent subtext, injecting a horrific edge into the tale of Thomasin’s burgeoning maturity and condemning the religious fanaticism that causes her family’s exile. Wisely, The Witch never overlooks that her parents’ religious fervor and condemnation of things they don’t understand do more to push Thomasin into darkness than the film’s titular villain ever could.
Much of The Witch’s thematic and narrative ambition rests squarely on the shoulders of Anya Taylor-Joy, who is fantastic in her first major role, navigating tricky and potentially silly territory with the perfect blend of fear, maternal instinct towards her younger siblings, and even the occasional note of menace. Thomasin is just a normal, frustrated teen girl stuck in a horrific circumstance, and Taylor-Joy charts a very irregular character arc without missing a beat.
The world Thomasin inhabits is perfectly etched by Eggers, who does everything he can to immerse the audience in the early 1600s, taking most of his dense but fascinating dialogue from first-hand sources and weaving plenty of authentic details into the slowly mounting tension of his script. He also excellently directs the film’s small ensemble, especially Ralph Ineson, gruff and grudgingly paternal as the fiery, hypocritical William, and Kate Dickie, whose internal battle between spite and affection for her children is wonderfully charted. Special note must also go to Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays Thomasin’s brother Caleb, and is spectacularly committed to one of the film’s most grueling scenes, delivering passionate religious conviction and chilling terror in equal measure.
Really, all of the period details and great performances that Eggers packs into The Witch are in service of the slow dawning horror of the film’s story. Eggers mines old wives’ tales and primal night terrors alike, slowly accumulating a series of things not quite right around the family farm, starting with dead corn and escalating into things much more haunting. The Witch’s progression is a subtle one, and by the time things get downright terrifying, the film has wiggled its way under your skin and settled in your spine for the unnerving conclusion. Eggers displays a strong eye for both underplayed creepy moments and pure, blistering horror, and the film’s bracing final moments are a disturbing powerhouse of a payoff. However, the film’s greatest and most unsettling creation is Black Phillip, the sinister goat who could be the source of the family’s troubles and an early contender for villain of the year.
In every detail, from the effective performances to the deeply unsettling score, Robert Eggers displays an absolute control of form and tone. The Witch is a promising start for this intriguing new director, a massively effective horror film with an incredible degree of difficulty that succeeds for its unabashed commitment to its setting and world. Eggers’ effortless command of every aspect of The Witch sets it apart, but the film’s true power emerges in the weeks and months after seeing it, as just the memories of unnerving moments like a crow’s deadly feast or a gravelly whispered question are enough make this viewer have a full-body shudder.