witch review
© Universal Pictures

The Witch

2015
Dir: Robert Eggers

Into the Woods

It’s been noted in horror fan circles that the 17th Century is a period scarcely visited by the genre, despite being rooted in such dramatically fertile soil. Unlike the oft-depicted gas-lit Victorian terrors of Hammer and their ilk, a pre-enlightenment time of puritanism, pestilence and plague is pregnant with naturally conceived fear. Belief in spirits both benevolent and malevolent was the default mindset. A time of rustic simplicity, so much further removed from contemporary life, is arguably the more challenging to capture effectively. Three rare excursions to the era spring to mind: the dour, harrowing tirade against the fascism of enforced faith Witchfinder General (1968), Tigon’s wyrd portmanteau-ish folk-frightener The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971), and, more recently, Ben Wheatley’s civil war psychotropic terror trip A Field In England (2013). We are spirited back there again for Universal’s latest major horror release; an atypically small, independent feeling foray into the mire. It wears its provincial intentions proudly on its homespun sleeve, its tagline ‘A New-England Folktale’.

The Witch begins with a characteristically religious family being banished from their Christian community for the father’s sin of ‘prideful conceit’. They set up home and farm out in the wilds, on the edge of a deep forest. Eldest daughter Thomasin shares the burden of bringing up her brother Caleb, two young twins, and a fresh newborn. In the blink of a rook’s beady eye, the baby is snatched from Thomasin’s care, victim of something barely-glimpsed from deep in the surrounding wilderness.

The abduction ignites a spiralling trauma of faith, planting a poisonous seed of paranoia that the family is somehow cursed. By the father’s sins? By nature itself? By something much, much worse..? Trying to maintain his abandoned flock’s sanity with the rationale of religion, Ralph Ineson’s guttural drawl is as low down as the toiled soil that is their livelihood and their punishing master. His bass-heavy vocal delivery suits this primitive picture perfectly. Kate Dickie is affectingly disturbed in the aftermath of having her offspring stolen, unable to trust even her own remaining children. Anya Taylor Joy impresses as Thomasin, daughter on the cusp of womanhood, expertly relaying a realisation that maturity is a primal power she can take in any direction she chooses.

The colour scheme is greyed out, sallow, drained of vitality. The camera gaze obsessively slow-zooms into the frame. Pulled into the trees, it beckons us into a threatening mesh of wilderness, luring us in, drawing us in. The fright factor comes primarily from the fact that children are the focus, their young brains unable to even conceive of evil’s capacity, their purity ripe for corruption. Lars Von Trier’s excruciating Antichrist (2009) is recalled. While ploughing a thoroughly different fear furrow, it too explored the dark potential of the wild when left untamed. At its culmination a fox memorably declared “chaos reigns”. This caprine tail of animal magick by Robert Eggers casts by far the more satisfying spell. Curiously, while the story is set among the British establishing their New England colonies in the United States, the film is an American production of entirely British-flavoured horror. Either way, it’s refreshing to see a genre-piece hatched from rural history, with roots stretching back to Witchfinder, in a mainstream cinema chain today.

By the time we’ve slipped inexorably down the mudslide into an intoxicating danse macabre of flying sorcery, we are fully, engrossingly bewitched. The laws of natural order seep slowly away as we creep to an eerie, unforgettable finale. The ingredients of this special view are dirt, wood, rain, spit, and blood. The formulation: the possible perversion of the mind unquestioningly imprinted with the mysticism of religion as fact. The unsettlingly seductive result is a most potent, “delicious” concoction of earthly delights. Chilling to the bone. Charming to the caw.

★ ★ ★ ★

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