Robert Eggers’ new movie, The Northman, arrives in Australian cinemas this week. In order to get prepped for this bloody tale of Viking vengeance, check out his unsettling horror debut The Witch: a folk horror movie that does not rely on gore to terrify the audience, but instead gradually worms its way under your skin to slowly unnerve you. It’s not the plunge from the top of the rollercoaster but a slow drive down a dark, country lane.
Set in 1630, a Puritan settler family are banished from their New England village after a heated religious argument in the colony. Isolated theologically and physically, patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) moves to the edge of a vast, dense forest with his family: wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and infant Samuel. But nature is unforgiving and the family’s crops fail. Suddenly, while under Thomasin’s care, baby Samuel disappears, stolen by a witch who dwells within the forest.
This tangled woodland is the demarcation line between the God-fearing Puritans and the ancient, primal terror living within it. Witchcraft was an accepted reality of the 17th century: William and his family live in accordance with their strict religious convictions, and if God exists, so too must the Devil. When events start to unravel, we believe it because they believe it.
But it is not solely the witch’s actions that cause family bonds to deteriorate. Existing tensions are strained by the failing harvest and, as Thomasin was responsible for Samuel when he was taken, it is not long before fingers are pointed her way. There is also an interesting level of ambiguity to the tale – is this all the result of simple bad luck, or does each family member hold some responsibility for what befalls them?
Eggers’ meticulous attention to detail goes a long a way to making The Witch work. Costumes were made from 17th century patterns; the houses are constructed faithfully in the thatched style of the time. Even the dialogue is cribbed from genuine diary entries and documents from the period. While the characters’ manner of speaking may take a little getting used to at first, the payoff is an immersive and authentic experience.
With the Pilgrims having only recently arrived in North America, Eggers cast British actors in the movie. Ineson’s imposing height and gravelly accent lend William important gravitas, and Dickie convincingly spirals in the face of disaster upon disaster. But most notably, this is Taylor-Joy’s first film, and Thomasin is the most complex character of all. As the eldest child, she spends most of her time trying to corral her boisterous younger siblings and getting blamed for everything. She has little in the way of options for her future. In many ways, she is the black sheep of the family.
Mark Korven’s twisted score uses abrasive strings, sinister drones and weird vocalisations to fray your nerves; even seemingly innocuous events are made malevolent with these off-kilter undertones. And Jarin Blaschke’s atmospheric cinematography contrasts the chaos of nature against the neat order of the austere farmland.
Ultimately, The Witch works so well because it values atmosphere, slowly cultivating a pervasive sense of dread over sleazier, cheaper thrills. This is not a film that will be forgotten as soon as the credits roll, for The Witch prefers to crawl inside your head and stay there.