In their new home, by a wood in 17th-century New England, a God-fearing English family experience a run of tragic misfortune. Is a witch to blame for their woes?
On paper, a horror film starring Finchy from The Office and a goat called Black Phillip doesn’t seem especially promising. But Robert Eggers’ astonishing directorial debut is the kind of horror that favours creeping dread over cheap jump scares. Eggers, whose next film is a Nosferatu remake, is one to watch.
Gorehounds will be disappointed, but rarely has a film this oppressive been so impressive.
The premise is quickly established — devout ex-pat Northerner William (Ralph Ineson — or Finchy if you prefer) and his family (wife, five kids, including newborn baby) are banished from their village for their killjoy religious fervour. They forge a life from the unforgiving land and their menagerie, including the aforementioned intransigent goat Black Phillip. It’s tough but manageable, until their baby boy mysteriously disappears. Intriguingly, Eggers shows from the off that the family is being targeted by a witch but crucially, his characters are kept in the dark. It leaves them grasping at bitter accusations, counter-allegations and hysterical detours into blind faith.
As Eggers escalates the tension, his cast respond admirably. Ineson’s guttural Yorkshire snarl has never been better employed, as William finds fault in anyone but himself, while Kate Dickie is typically intense as his grieving wife.
However, it’s the newcomers who impress most. Harvey Scrimshaw, as the oldest son, whose awakening sexuality seems to act as a beacon for the witch, gives one of the best child performances in years. But it’s Anya Taylor-Joy, as teenage daughter Thomasin, who commands the attention. Marked out as the witch due to an ill-advised remark, she’s a blend of disarming guilelessness and wide-eyed innocence, but with a bitter edge that could, in the right light, be mistaken for malevolence.
As this powder keg of a family unit explodes, Eggers displays admirable control. One sequence, in which Eggers and DP Jarin Blaschke hold the shot for what seems like forever, as the witch manifests as a seductress, is unbearably tense. It won’t be for everyone — it’s slow, the dialogue (recreated from 17th-century transcripts) is occasionally impenetrable, and gorehounds will be disappointed. But rarely has a film this oppressive been so impressive.
A hugely assured debut, The Witch is a beautiful, bleak brainworm that will haunt you for days.