By James Hancock February 15th, 2016
I just had an incredibly powerful experience watching a phenomenal new horror movie so I apologize in advance if I slip in and out of hyperbole as I lavish praise on The Witch, the debut feature film by writer-director Robert Eggers. I had been hearing very positive rumblings about The Witch ever since Robert Eggers won best director at Sundance in 2015. As a total fanatic for horror movies, I patiently waited for the chance to see it and I have to say that the movie did not disappoint in any way shape or form. The film is set in the 1630s in an isolated part of New England where a family of Calvinists has been cast out of their community for extremist views and is now living in total solitude. The intensely devout family, consisting of a husband and wife and their five children, simply wish to work hard and practice their faith as they feel they ought to. But trouble starts almost immediately with the disappearance of their youngest child and the subsequent suspicious paranoia running among them as to who might be indulging in witchcraft. All hell breaks loose as the family begins to tear itself to pieces in an onslaught of religious hysteria (perhaps justified) looking for the source of their woes and misfortune. The Witch is dark and disturbing but manages to walk a very fine line between what is real versus what might be imagined. I was riveted from start to finish watching this extraordinary film and frequently found my face contorting into various grimaces as I looked in horror at images that I had never seen before. If you’re a fan of the genre, The Witch is one of those rare horror movies that we’re always searching for, a movie that manages not to be a remake, rip-off or reboot, but a genuinely bold and original new vision that promises to stimulate and pertrify the senses of anyone who sees it.
***Mild Spoilers Ahead***
In attendance at the screening at BAMcinématek were Robert Eggers and two of his lead actors, relative newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson, a character actor I’ve always liked but who is particularly good in this film. We were treated to a relatively long Q&A with a variety of interesting details that only intensified my appreciation of the movie. Robert Eggers described growing up in southern New Hampshire and how he has been preoccupied with the history of witchcraft and fairy tales in the region his entire life. His earliest memories are nightmares about witches and he always felt the woods behind his home were haunted. For people living in the area in 1630, witches were as real as rocks and trees, and part of the genius of the movie is how Eggers makes witchcraft feel as organic to the environment as hunting and farming or practicing Christianity. He has been researching the topic for years and was unwilling to make the film unless he could hire English actors who could handle the dialect (lots of “Thees”) and give the period the appropriate atmosphere of authenticity such as the constricting hand-stitched clothes that the actors claimed were a great aid for getting into character. For Ralph Ineson, the film might have become a little too authentic, who repeatedly had to fight the goat featured in all the advertising and ended up with several broken ribs. Nonetheless he still manages to bring an incredible physicality to his role which required him to lose 30 pounds.
Anya Taylor-Joy steals the show as Thomasin, a beautiful young girl who excites incestuous fantasies in her little brother and the paranoid ravings of her twin siblings (the best child actors I’ve ever seen in a horror movie) who are the first to accuse of her black magic. As she protests her innocence, we primarily experience the story from her vantage point and she carries the film with ease. During the Q&A, Anya Taylor-Joy admitted she has a very hard time not adapting to whatever accents are being used around her. She sounded pretty American this evening but apparently her accent is ordinarily quite posh. At any rate, I see a bright future in store for the talented young actress. All horror aside, this movie would still work even if it were just about a family disintegrating. While the film establishes early on that there are definite supernatural forces at work in the region, even without these elements, the film is an incredibly engaging family drama that simultaneously skewers religious hypocrisy. As effective as those scenes are, however, the real treat is the supernatural payoff. With all due respect to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Witch has the most terrifying scenes of witchcraft I have ever seen in a movie. It would not surprise me at all in the years to come if The Witch were to completely redefine witches on screen for an entire generation. This is an experience I eagerly look forward to repeating, hopefully in the company of people who are very prone to being traumatized. I have no idea what Robert Eggers is planning for his follow-up film, but whatever he does in the future, I’ll be the first in line to see it.
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