In “The Witch,” the latest in a hot streak of indie horror films, the devil is only half of this family’s problems.
William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and his five children are banished from their home on a 1630s New England colony and settle a farm outside an ominous forest. Their oldest daughter, the teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) has just prayed for mercy from God, saying she has broken all Ten Commandments “in thought” and that she knows she deserves “more hellfire” in her life but begs forgiveness. After her prayer, she plays peekaboo with her baby brother Samuel, only for him to vanish when she closes her eyes.
The baby is lost to “the wood,” and Eggers hints at its horrific fate without explicitly showing the act: mutilated, churned to a bloody pulp and covered over a writhing, decrepit woman’s naked body. Eggers illustrates each monstrous deed throughout the film often through a quick percussive beat and cut to black. It’s light on genuine scares and completely without traditional horror jump thrills, but “The Witch” has a sickly, unsettling aura to everything this family must endure. It’s the story of how a pious family is torn apart through tragedy and mistrust.
The film invokes thundering religious overtones time and again as this Puritanical family speaks only of their lord and little else. Ineson himself has the gravely, rumbling voice of God and dresses to resemble Jesus Christ. And yet there is no God in this world, only evil. Everything is washed of color and light, and much of the film illuminates its brown interiors only through candlelight. “The Witch” is a bleak, never showy nightmare made only more disturbing in how it’s a story of witches and demons but relies only on dark realism to create its scares.
Not unlike “The Babadook,” “The Witch” heightens the family melodrama above the fantastical horror. The family’s middle son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) starts to notice his older sister’s burgeoning womanhood, the two toddler twins are adorable little terrors who perpetuate rumors that Thomasin is a witch, William tells a small white lie to his wife after the disappearance of a family heirloom, and Katherine slowly grows to loathe her daughter and seems to blame her for baby Samuel’s loss.
All of this mistrust mounts as the curse upon the family takes hold in small and large ways, and Eggers’s strength lies in walking the line between who are the real devils and sinners of the film, and how even the most righteous can turn to evil. At the same time, the abstract, slow burn horror could be in need of some more startling moments, and with the glut of Old English period dialogue, “The Witch” gets awfully talky.
But with gross out horror and cheap found footage pics the norm in the mainstream, “The Witch” is proof that we deserve more hellfire.