The Texas Chainsaw Massacre employs deranged cannibals to probe the threat of economic collapse; Dawn of the Dead utilizes zombies to exploit conspicuous consumption; John Carpenter's The Thing depicts shape-shifting aliens as a metaphor for AIDS; and all three of them continue to scare the shit out of audiences years after their initial release. That's the true test of any great horror pic, its ability to invoke fear or get under the skin of viewers while engaging them in a cathartic experience. Robert Eggers's The Witch doesn't speak to the dark issues concerning human kind with the same intensity as its vintage brethren, but it succeeds wholeheartedly in providing viewers with the heebie-jeebies. Okay, so the film poses a few questions about spirituality and gender roles, but let's be honest, this is a bid by New Hampshire-born Eggers to introduce horror fans to the regional tales of witchcraft that haunted him as a kid.
1630, New England. A religious zealot (Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished from their colonial plantation and forced to make camp on the edge of a foreboding forest. It isn't long before their crops die off, their livestock begin to articulate words and their children start to vanish into the night. Paranoia runs rampant among the family who accuse one another of consorting with the devil.
I attended church regularly as a kid. I remember being freaked out by the more fanatical devotees, the dudes that would convulse in their pew while extending their palms toward the ceiling and shouting "amen" to the rafters. Were they better Christians than me? Did God somehow notice them more than me? Was it simply a cry for attention?
William (Ineson) conforms to a theology too rigid for even his fellow Puritans. He becomes convinced that living in peril is part of the lord's design to prepare him for salvation. His baritone voice is one you get lost in as it wraps around you. It booms from the theater speakers with a chilling authority. It's ironic then that his character surrenders all sense of power before the lord as his family is torn apart before him. The worse things get, the more William believes it is God's plan.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and production designer Craig Lathrop deliver sumptuous imagery more realistic than anything offered via the found footage genre. The shadowy farmhouse, its bleak browns the color of the land that surrounds it, and monochromatic fields provide the movie a ghastly quality. They're aided by an unnerving script that elicits panic and dread at every turn. The old English dialogue (taken from 16th century journals) only adds to the chilling realism of the picture.
Anya Taylor-Joy in the role of William's daughter Thomasin delivers a performance that resonates with complicated anxiety and vulnerability. Harvey Scrimshaw plays her younger brother Caleb. Their sibling rivalry is transcendent. It smacks of the Crucible. All kids pick on one another, but the repercussions of their antagonism is harrowing. Caleb becomes aware that his sister is maturing into a woman. The pain of misunderstanding that runs across his brow the first time he catches a glimpse of her cleavage is not limited to 17th-century protestant children, but rather is perpetual.
Eggers exhibits a great deal of courage in his approach to the material. The horror creeps up slowly yet early. The witch is not a shadowy figure appearing at the periphery of the family's world, but rather a grotesque crone who uses cauldrons and the blood of babies to concoct evil spells. The fact that she could appear while sunlight fights to dance between the trees or against a backdrop of night results in an experience that bristles with menace. Babies are slaughtered, goats speak to people, the witch appears in the form of a fluffy bunny, yet the mood remains so brittle it could snap.
This is not only the best horror film of this young year, it is a movie that will surely appear on many critics' top ten lists come December. It is a truly creepy exercise and one that demonstrates great promise for all those involved.