In The Witch, the devil is terrifying, but people are worse

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If horror movies come in thematic waves, then the last 15 years have largely been dominated by thoroughly modern fears: technology serving as a conduit of terror in scores of found footage films, or grisly grindhouse flicks expressing Western angst in the wake of terrorist attacks and botched war efforts. But another movement has been bubbling just beneath the surface, one in which movies like The Conjuring and The Babadook have gestured toward more primal, and even religious, fears. If Robert Eggers’ terrifying feature debut The Witch is any indication, it may finally be time for that trend to take over completely.

It’s a throwback to the films of the 1960s and ‘70s, when the Devil was the ultimate boogeyman and movies like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were king. Those films didn’t just serve as fleeting collages of jump scares and gore parades; they took what felt safe — people’s religious faith — and weaponized it, leaving audiences shaken long after they left the theater.

Cribbing from the perverted homily of mid-century horror, The Witch tells the story of an ostracized Puritanical family beset by witchcraft, possession, and doubt. It’s a movie that makes you believe the presence of pure evil isn’t just possible — it’s downright likely.

The film takes place in New England, circa 1630 — decades before the infamous Salem witch trials. Husband and wife William and Katherine (Game of Thrones alums Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie in committed performances) are being booted from their township due to a vague religious transgression. All we know is William has been a little too fervent in his faith, and the couple is forced to start anew with their five children in the wilderness. Given the circumstances, the family makes a decent go of it. Then their new baby disappears.

Their eldest daughter Thomasin (a haunting and subtle Anya Taylor-Joy) was watching the child, but a witch in the spooky woods nearby is the logical culprit — at first. As crops die and calamity falls, the family starts turning inward on one another, and then on Thomasin.

Where many films would hold back on the period appointments in order to help modern audiences adjust, Eggers goes in the exact opposite direction, opting instead for full and immediate immersion. William and his family speak with thick, Yorkshire accents, and their dialogue is peppered with antiquated constructions full of "thou"s and "thee"s. The filmmaker has said he fell back on Shakespeare when writing the film, and even pulled stretches of dialogue from letters written in the era, and it shows. Together with the ragged clothing and sparse accommodations the family are forced to deal with, it lends The Witch a sense of creepy verisimilitude, as if we’re simply looking back at a real piece of history that just so happens to resemble a Puritanical riff on The Shining.

The Witch promotional still (A24)

(Rafy / A24)

Of course, that does come with a price; the first time I saw the film at Sundance last year, I struggled with the language, and thought Eggers’ slow burn dragged on too long for its own good. I’m not sure if The Witch underwent any trims on its way to release, but while seeing it again recently, those initial reservations evaporated entirely, the movie’s creeping camera and shrieking strings creating an atmosphere of unavoidable dread and tension. Eggers’ filmmaking is bold, confident, and endlessly patient, luring the viewer into a world that is seductive in its barren beauty and measured pace.

While Eggers demonstrates considerable technical prowess, The Witch is ultimately an actor’s film above all else, with just six performers on screen for the majority of the running time. Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson ride a fine line between obnoxious and terrified as Thomasin’s younger siblings, particularly as they develop a disturbing relationship with a mysterious goat they call Black Phillip. Harvey Scrimshaw is earnest as her devout younger brother, who goes out of his way to help her — even if it’s to his own detriment. But it’s Thomasin herself that the film swirls around, and newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy is nothing short of astounding. She plays Thomasin as an independent young woman discovering herself in an era that simply cannot comprehend independent women, mixing vulnerability and slow, simmering outrage to heartbreaking effect as Thomasin is attacked from every possible side.

It’s the modern inversion of the ‘70s horror formula Eggers was clearly inspired by: yes, the Devil may very well be real, but the one we should really be afraid of is the devil in our own hearts. Horrible things happen in the dark fairy tale world of this movie, but in almost every instance it’s not because capital-e Evil stepped in to twist the screws of the story. Instead, it’s usually the result of human failings: of pride, of adherence to dogma, of turning to fear and demagoguery when compassion is what’s needed most. Eggers is pulling from centuries of folklore and legend, but his approach results in a small story that feels stirringly vital. The Witch is the tale of a family tearing itself apart — and when those holes are opened up, the darkness of the outside world is all too ready to step in.


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