Religion is a curious sort of creature when it comes to horror films and pop culture. So often the terrors lurking at the heart of these films are deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian myth– the demonic servants of Satan, cultists, wrathful apparitions, monsters, comets and viral outbreaks, and the living dead. Yet so rarely does a horror film make much from the idea of mortals grappling with the concept of eternal salvation coupled with the certitude that life is dictated by the will of an omnipresent creator. This itself is both terrifying and emotionally distressing. Robert Egger’s harrowing debut film “The Witch” has it both ways, delivering an existential Puritan nightmare coupled with some very real horrors bumping in the night.
The film opens in the New World– a rough “plantation” in 17th century New England. Life- hardened William (Ralph Inerson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children have opted for exile, having openly disagreed with the clergy over an ambiguous religious quarrel. It is enough to know that William’s family leaves society, retreating to the solitude of the harsh wilderness to build a farm and to pursue a pastoral life of deep religious servitude. The family kneels in the cold earth of before dawn to give thanks to the creator, with dark walls of pine thickets looming disconcertingly in the distance.
“We will conquer this wilderness, it will not consume us,” William intones stonily to his son Caleb (Harveey Scrimshaw).
Less fateful words have rarely been spoken, as later he shovels earth into his mouth, beseeching God to forgive him for this hubris– all hardships, extant or paranormal coming as a test of faith. Every choice seems like the wrong one.
“The Witch” is languid in pace, softly building tension with nary a jump scare to be had. Egger’s direction is deft, building a visual language of claustrophobic dread in the tiny farm despite wide spaces and open gray skies.
The fact that this is a freshman work by an untested director is astounding. Meanwhile, the aural space of the film comes as an atonal cloak, descending upon the world as if an invisible dome has sealed the characters away from the salvation of a noisier civilization.
Much of Egger’s focus is on eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), whose preposterously large eyes and cherubic features perfectly fit the form factor of the typical horror movie damsel. Taylor-Joy radiates a rare emotional complexity in each precisely rendered close-up that is nearly pathological at times. Thomasin is a girl on the precipice of womanhood, subtly hinted at by covetous glances down her dress from younger brother, Caleb and the histrionic whispers of her mother.
That ‘sin’ can be extracted from her name is an unlikely coincidence. This pubescent sexual tension is left unexplored in full, but serves as yet another intelligent motif- threading typical horror convention with Puritan religious dread.
“The Witch” comes at an odd time, released now late in the winter, betraying the confidence that it couldn’t stand out against other genre entries during the typical fall horror glut. Yet without competition, the film’s psychological European sensibilities are more starkly relieved, though still undoubtedly confound some viewers looking for a more middle- of- the- road period piece horror-thriller.
As the narrative proceeds, children vanish and dark animalistic omens appear from the woods to disturb the pioneers. Meanwhile the family implodes on the metaphysical stage, with all the verve of Tennessee Williams delivered in antiquated lines and a thick irish brogue. This, coupled with the monstrous unseen Other lurking everywhere and nowhere, creates a delightful and horrifying third act.
There is unquestionably a monster in this film, seen unequivocally bathing in blood and human bits, appearing later to whisper awful temptation in Thomasin’s ears. Yet this thing is also a metaphor for unwavering faith embraced bitterly in the face of brutal hardship by minds that can reckon no other way. That it can handily be both things simultaneously is the scariest and most profound triumph of “The Witch.”