There’s little actual horror in Robert Eggers’ directorial debut – at least not in the sense the genre has come to rely on in recent years. There are no jump scares, manufactured shock moments, gratuitous gore or sadistic violence. Instead, Eggers has woven a compellingly chilling dark New England fable from actual transcripts, reports and documents of the time.
In the early 17th Century, William and his family are exiled from their New England Puritan community, settling on the edge of a forest more than a day’s travel from the nearest settlement. But something is lurking in the forest, something malign which may already have taken a foothold in the struggling family’s failing farm.
Sumptuously shot, Eggers and Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke make the most of natural light to imbue the landscape (Ontario standing in for New Hampshire) with a sinister majesty and ethereal atmosphere, supported by an excellent score by Mark Korven. The performances from the small cast are impressive too, each of them bringing authenticity and passion to dialogue lifted directly from contemporary accounts. Only Kate Dickie feels like obvious casting; her performance is fine but echoes some of her previous work so strongly that it renders her character’s arc predictable.
Bleak, dark and foreboding, what the film lacks in contemporary horror tropes it makes up for in rich period detail and a creeping sense of doom-laden tension. It’s unlikely to give you nightmares, but it will stick with you long after the lights have come back up and you’ve left the cinema. The real horror of the situation comes more from the fear and superstitions harnessed by the puritanical theocratic society of 17th century colonial America which sows suspicion, paranoia and judgement into an already troubled farmland. In a modern-day America wrestling with a resurgent neo-puritan religious right, “The Witch” works as a timely allegorical warning to today as well as a terrifying glimpse into the savage and brutal Colonial past.
Thought-provoking, visually striking and expertly crafted, “The Witch” is an accomplished debut from Eggers; chilling, mature and clever. I can’t wait to see what he does next…