For many horror fans, the wait for director Robert Eggers’s The Witch has been quite a long one. After playing the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, word quickly spread that Eggers had made a film unlike any we’ve seen—at least not in many years. Often, the hype surrounding a movie like The Witch is exactly that, nothing but hype. In this case, however, the wait has been worth it (in my opinion) and we’ve finally been given the kind of genre period piece that we deserve.
Eggers plays his hand fast and simple: A family of 17th century English settlers, now in America, find themselves leaving those they came with when there’s opposition in their religious beliefs. Left to start on their own, father William (Ralph Ineson) leads his clan of six in their new home, landing near a wooded area straight from The Brothers Grimm. Quickly into the story we witness the oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) loses her baby when, during a game of peek-a-boo, it seems that something from the woods has snatched the child away. In a second, the baby is gone. While the family suspects an animal at first, we, the audience, know this was an incident touched by something supernatural; it doesn’t take long for the family to be under the same impression. The kidnapping quickly triggers a spiral into madness, with the mother of the family (Kate Dickie) fearing this is the work of The Devil.
While Eggers does so many things well here, the best choice was to make The Witch into a movie that moves at a decent pace. Directors often make the mistake of taking moody material, only to think that “moody” means long, ceaseless shots. There’s a huge difference between dread and boredom, and Eggers proves he knows that well. The suspicions of witchcraft and Satanic work escalate when it’s revealed that the family’s twins speak to a goat, named Black Phillip, and he might actually be speaking back. It’s a plot device that would normally seem ridiculous, but in context to the time and history of witchcraft, it works to the story’s advantage. A woman sat next to me in the theater and kept exclaiming, “I don’t get it!” I found it to be upsetting that this same woman could probably watch a horror movie that takes place in present day, no matter how ridiculous the scenario, and have no problems “getting it”. Yet she can’t accept a tale that takes place in a time in which suspicions of witchcraft caused true hysteria. Whether the witchcraft from our history was real or not, it’s plausible to think that such madness might have occurred with no record of it whatsoever. And this is what makes The Witch so successful. We’re witness to one isolated family’s horrors. There are no cell phones to call for help, no nearby police stations to run to. The twisted scenario that unravels around these people feels intimate, therefore it reads as all the more disturbing. The Witch is both important and unique because it proves that there is a place for quiet, unnerving horror that doesn’t take place in this day, year, or century. Robert Eggers proves he has the chops for a New England folk-tale (aptly billed that way as a subtitle) and I can’t wait to see what he creates next.