The Witch: A New-England Folk Tale (2016 UK Release)

Artfully made horror with style and pace. Ye olde storytelling.


We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.”

– William, The Witch (2015)

 

The Witch: A New-England Folk Tale; The haunting feature début from writer / director Robert Eggers has finally, somewhat innocuously, crept onto UK screens. Following a heralded Sundance appearance (picking up the Directing Award among further nominations elsewhere) and amongst numerous rave reviews from critics internationally, The Witch has grossed reasonably in last weeks box office charts despite receiving roughly half the exposure of much wider releases such as ‘Deadpool’ or ‘Hail, Caesar!’.

A sinister, dialogue driven delve into seventeenth century faith-based paranoia within the family unit, The Witch is a genre-bending film that arguably justifies all of it’s surrounding mania. Situated in seventeenth century (1630s) New-England, the film stalks a self-effacing puritanical family, ostracised and excommunicated from the plantation community on which they live and banished to the bleak and imposing wilderness of the surrounding woodland. Amid striving to carve a new life for themselves and grow crops amongst the barren and forbidding scenery, it transpires very early on that the woods are home to more than just hares and wolves. When something unseen snatches the young baby Samuel from under the care of his older sister Thomasin, the family starts to unravel as terror, starvation and the vitriolic uncertainty of their own belief starts to consume them. But what is it that sets this apart from other blockbuster horror flicks of recent memory that has critics talking?

Going into the cinema with a slight tinge of apprehension, I’ll admit I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of The Witch. The theatrical trailer had (luckily) left enough to the imagination that I was willing to suspend my cynicism regarding the predictability of many “scary” films and their reliance on cheap jump tactics, as is so very often the case. From a few minutes in however, I could tell that this wasn’t that sort of experience. While at points throughout the camera indulges fully in scenes of on-the-nose sadism, the majority of the actual scares come from a combination of sudden scene transition and the films chilling original score, flitting alarmingly between anxiety inducing build ups and sudden jerks to the following shot (a flash-transition to a game of peekaboo or to a character chopping wood). However even these jumps aren’t particularly pronounced, and often the viewer is left anticipating something that never quite happens.

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With much of the dialogue lifted from seventeenth century accounts of watch trials and witchcraft, the tiny cast numbers primarily, modestly at six; Father, William (Ralph Ineson), Mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), and four children Thomasin, Caleb, Mercy and Jonas (Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson respectively). The feeling this creates is almost that of watching a theatre production as opposed to a film, not only because of the cast size, but because of the raw gravitas of each and every person on-screen. Not once do you get the impression that these characters aren’t entirely real, and each one brings to the showing their own disquieting edge. Harvey Scrimshaw gives a concurrently rapturous and horror-struck possession performance (in what is probably one of the most accomplished of it’s kind since Linda Blair in The Exorcist), and Kate Dickie (Prometheus, Filth) is similarly on form as the pious and grief addled Katherine. Featuring especially stand out performances from a monologuing Ineson (Game Of Thrones) and Anya Taylor-Joy, who commands a puritanical innocence and simultaneously heretical defiance that breathes real life into her leading role, one that will no doubt elevate her to further successes.

With such a solid foundation of talent to springboard from, The Witch has fun tormenting it’s fleshed out characters, turning them slowly upon each other as times get harder, and as the confusion of rarely seeing the present evil takes hold and gives way to infighting and accusation. The audience is forced to watch as the family struggle to understand why God is punishing them, with only their steadfast faith to turn to even in the face of tragedy after tragedy. This ultimately acting as the wedge drives them from one another, feels all the more bitter as the film gradually takes its leap from implied to much more real devil at work.

Interspersed with strange, extended black shot transition panels throughout, the theatrical tone lands somewhere between Arthur Millers ‘The Crucible’ and Lars Von Triers ‘Antichrist’, with dramatic monologues remaining faithful to the material upon which it bases itself without seeming dated or inaccessible to modern audiences.

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The faithfulness of The Witch to its source period is in fact one of the first things to strike you, principally with regards to its costume and set design. Every stitch of clothing seems authentic, and every aspect of the world in which it is set has been meticulously researched. In an early interview, Eggers himself describes some of the lengths gone to regarding the design that went into the project: “We didn’t use make-up unless natural elements like grass or mud were required. We had actual goats (that I don’t recommend to anyone) and I used original period pieces like hand-riven oak clapboards to sheath the structures, reed-thatched roofs and hand-forged nails.” From insisting the cast learn how to actually milk goats, ride horses and chop wood correctly, how to use hand scythes and load archaic rifles, to it’s reticence to employ any real CGI to speak of (but for the odd mystical or supernatural scene), the film wants to transport you into it’s world completely.

Basking in it’s real world minimalism in location shooting, The Witch traverses very little physical space within it’s narrative, flitting from a few minutes shot at the plantation during the opening sequence to the space outside and buried just within a remote woodland area of Kiosk, Ontario. The claustrophobic effect of this is difficult to shake, and helps give the film it’s trademark air of suspense. This coupled with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (Who worked with Eggers on his early shorts) shooting within an unusually traditional 1.66 aspect ratio, giving the trees and surrounding landscape their looming presence on screen, often dwarfing the cast under the sullen autumnal branches of stripped birch trees. Predominantly shot in the gloom of natural light, employing 40s vintage lenses and relying on candles or window holes for light indoors, the feeling The Witch encapsulates is definitely one of genuine seventeenth century sparsity, the sense that there isn’t really anywhere else to run to, which means it doesn’t have to cake on the fright minute by minute and can take its time.

The score too, an all original imagining from composer Mark Koven, employs a host of different acoustic and experimental instruments to create a very trademark sound that seems very much at home in the woodland of 1630s New-England. Although often using strange instruments; a Swedish Nyckelharpa, a Waterphone, an old Cello, Kovens score underpins the whole film through it’s rejection of over-polished production techniques. Even when “abusing a cello” in his own words, every mistake, every human element has been left in, and when overlaid with ritualistic howls and warped, wind-like vocal incantations during climactic scenes, the end result is chilling, leaving the audience wondering if the noise surrounding the characters is meant for our ears, or a product of whatever lurks inside the forest.

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While in no way aiming his film at a teenage audience in search of a cheap Friday night thrill (there were mixed mutterings from various age groups upon the credits rolling), Eggers has succeeded in creating a genuinely unsettling work of cinema that most definitely hits home in a sustained way. Well paced, superbly acted, and interestingly shot, this is definitely not one I would recommend giving a miss; and if that isn’t enough of an accolade, it’s now been officially endorsed by the Satanic Temple.


Runtime: 92 Minutes

Genre: Horror / Drama / Thriller

Age Rating: 15

Film Distributor: A24

So what do you think? Have a think and let us know in the comments section below.


– Max Colbert

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