Religious hysteria over witchcraft in the 1600s lingers as part of American culture; even today, the fanatical response mirrors similar responses to different groups from some Americans. One can imagine that the stories told to warn of the dangers of witchcraft might sound similar to the one told in The Witch. With the subtitle “A New England Folktale” appearing on screen, The Witch feels appropriately both of a certain time and timeless, with a sense of dread permeating the entire film.
The Witch opens in a small Puritan plantation in 1630, with William (Ralph Ineson), an English farmer, and his family facing banishment for blasphemy. William takes his family out of the plantation, eventually settling in an open space near the woods some distance away. They build a home and farm, with the idea of becoming self-sufficient. Quickly, though, William’s plan falls apart. First, the infant of the family disappears while playing peekaboo with eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Then the crops begin to rot. The family begins to fall apart as William’s wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) begs to end the family’s exile and prays for her missing child’s soul. Adolescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) begins to notice Thomasin in a manner that’s not familial. Thomasin, meanwhile, taunts her twin younger siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) with fibs about dancing with the devil.
And that’s just the beginning.
The Witch marks the writing and directing debut of Robert Eggers, and what he’s accomplished here is astonishing. The film is meticulous in its depiction of 1630s New England, with some of the lines coming from diaries from the time period. That sense of repression only adds to the growing unease, and makes what might be more conventional horror tropes in a film set now seem all the more foreign. Some of the particular visuals created leave an impression sure to burn into the minds of audience members.
The film also casts its family perfectly. Considering that four out of the six main actors here are children, that’s remarkable in and of itself. With what this film requires of the actors, though, it’s legitimately surprising; plenty of adult actors would have a hard time with this content. The highlight of the cast is Taylor-Joy, who’s the center of the film. She gets a wide range of material to play, and she nails it from beginning to end.
There’s no telling what the rest of 2016 looks like for the horror genre. But this early in the year, it feels safe to guess that The Witch will soon be joining The Babadook and It Follows as a prime example of great horror films from this decade. It’s a worthy addition.