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Review: THE WITCH (2015)

After watching a few horror films that didn’t live up to my expectations, I knew there was a really great one out there that I would award a perfect score to, where the narrative really fit the story. And the atmosphere created with set design, music, acting, and cinematography all told a really satisfying tale. I thought I’d try to find said film, and after a lot of thought, I realized that the film is The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers (The Northman, The Lighthouse).

When William (Ralph Ineson), a member of a Puritan Plymouth colony circa 1630s in New England, is ostracized from his community over religious differences, he brings his wife Katharine (Kate Dickie) and his four children, including Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), his eldest and daughter to eke out a living on a farm they build on land encroached upon by a deep, dark forest. Katharine has a baby whom they name Samuel, and one day, under Thomasin’s care, Samuel goes missing. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Samuel’s disappearance, unusual events transpire for the family trying vainly to make their living on the farm.

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So much is left up to the audience’s imagination, and The Witch wastes no time in horrifying. Director Robert Eggers has a lot of ground to cover with his story, and he does so efficiently with his cinematography. Notably with a scene in the first few minutes of the movie with no dialogue, and only an old woman’s hand, a fidgeting, naked baby, and a knife. Creeping, inevitable camerawork allows the film’s pace to march, and yet, every shot is used in as minimalistic a way as possible, ironic given its Puritan players.

The dialogue is a pure wonder to behold, but it is a very clear barrier to accessible storytelling here. Eggers clearly made the move to have his actors lovingly recreate 1630’s New England with Middle English to give The Witch, a period horror, a feeling of authenticity. I don’t consider that a mark against the movie, however. It is a period movie, and if it’s not palatable for the audience, Netflix comes with subtitles. The reason why I say ‘accessible’ and not a barrier to ‘good’ storytelling here is because even the mildly patient moviegoers can figure out Egger’s story here, and the actor ensemble does an excellent job of making their intended actions simple.

The score is a dissonant fever pitch of violins and vocals, making our hair stand on end right out of the gate, and furthermore, always reminding us what kind of movie we’re watching. It is blissfully silent, too, when the actors are working their Middle English dialogue magic.

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The costumes are another wonder in this elegant film. To my untrained eye, the costumes are amazing, a complete cut above any costuming I’d ever seen in a movie, since, well, ever. I am a historical recreationist for a hobby, I’m not terribly good at sewing my own clothing and I can appreciate the effort made to make it look good, being friends with recreators in my group who create clothing perhaps just on the cusp of this time period. Everything, clothing, weapons, pouches, looks lovingly handcrafted and brought to life by the costume designer, Linda Muir, who deserves a mention here.

Otherwise, with the outdoor sets, Eggers’ outstanding craft is plain to see here and painstakingly handmade, with the gloomy, grey candle-lit indoor sets and natural, outdoor lighting doing the rest of his work setting the scene for Colonial period New England.

With all of this great scene-setting, the actors waste no time creating their characters. Watching her family gang up on Thomasin in an unsettling way, I soberly reflected that I was looking at a historical example of a young woman who, if not married by age 16, was sent to or to be a servant for a rich family, work in a poorhouse, or worse. Women dressed their hair and covered it, and seeing women who don’t in the film is strange indeed. For more info on Robert Egger’s passion for research and the breadth and depth of his work, I’ve included a link here: How Robert Eggers Used Real Historical Accounts to Create His Horror Sensation ‘The Witch’

The performance of the children and their parents is great. The naughty, vexatious twins and the mischief that they get up to make an all-too-aware audience squirm. Ralph Ineson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Agatha And The Truth Of Murder) nails his part here, even appearing to give his character William, the father, some redeeming qualities of his character. A celebrated voice actor, Ineson’s sonorous tones were one of my favourite parts of the movie. Kate Dickie (Game of Thrones), looks the complete part of a Puritan wife, as though she stepped from a painting. She proves that she can be unhinged in any movie, if only a little too well, from chewing the scenery in Game of Thrones.

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Little Harvey Scrimshaw needs a kid-sized Oscar for his performance, how many kids could play a brother trying to squish his odd feelings of lust when his sister is around? Stunning new break-out actress Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, Glass) has the most to do, both in terms of acting and as her character, Thomasin. But she is appropriately both beautifully pristine and unnerving at the beginning, bringing The Witch to its perfect, horrifying conclusion.

Another honourable mention I should give is to one of the best little actors in the movie, the goat, Black Phillip. For me, this was another one of my favourite parts of the movie, I love seeing animals in films. But I like when those animals’ characters emerge “victorious” for lack of a better word. For a little more info on Black Phillip’s working relationship with Eggers and Ineson, as well as his trainer Anna Kilch, I’ve included a link to an article here: Black Phillip: The Real Story Behind the Breakout Goat From ‘The Witch’

The Witch strives to unsettle, to disturb, to alarm-not to shock its audience with its events. If you’re looking for Insidious or Paranormal Activity, you won’t find it here in the chilling elements Eggers uses. It won’t please everyone, but a moviegoer who likes to be creeped out, this quality film will both impress and chill you to the bone. The less said about The Witch the better, because if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat.

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