WHAT makes a truly successful, memorable horror movie? Is it a handle on atmosphere? The ability to make the hairs stand on the back of your neck? To have a deeper meaning beyond the surface? The Witch, a quietly terrifying arthouse-inflected religious horror, fulfils all those things and more to make for a singularly unnerving piece of modern horror filmmaking.
Subtitled “A New England Folktale”, the film is set in the early 17th century and centres on a devoutly Christian family – headed by the extremely strict William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) – who are forced out of their small community because of their stubborn beliefs. Setting up a new home on the edge of the woods, the tension is mounted and escalated to nerve-shredding levels as the family start to feel an evil presence lurking amongst the trees.
This is personified at first when the baby of the family mysteriously disappears right in front of teenage sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). This is followed by one of the sons found catatonic in the woods, leading to fears that something may have “claimed” him and paranoia that one of other children might be actually be a witch.
This is a traditional horror but in a now untraditional sense – that is, it doesn’t adhere to what modern audiences have grown accustomed to from the genre in recent years. Trite jump scares, clichéd characters and cheap gore are off the menu here in favour of something far more insidiously disturbing.
Underpinning the piece are themes of faith, devotion, superstition and the fear of God. Debut director Robert Eggers approaches these things in a strikingly ambiguous and thought-provoking manner, never feeling like it’s jamming sermons down your throat. He carefully controls the tone of the film with a sparse but creepily effective score, uncomfortably intimate indoor drama populated with loaded silences and elongated shots of the wooded location held hanging to let us ponder and soak in the fear-drenched atmosphere.
It asks fascinating questions about the nature of adherence to religion and stringent belief thereof, the way it can be used as a coping mechanism to help in extreme conditions and isolation (physical, mental and spiritual). But it also looks at how it can be misused when fearing forces in the world that you don’t understand, such as when the father abuses his status within the family to control them as a way to stop what’s happening yet inadvertently destroying what he holds dear in the process.
The Witch is labelled as a horror film and rightly so; it does its job as one that gets under your skin in precise, detailed, unforgettable fashion. But it’s about a whole lot more than just scaring you with aesthetics, seeking to make you think just as much as creep you out.