When it comes to paranoia, very few historical events are brought up before that of the various witch hunts (actual ones) that have occurred throughout human history (Salem being one of the most popular). I am not an expert (though I was rather intrigued when I did visit Salem), but it is hard to think that many of these incidents actually involved truth behind the accusations that were deployed. Of course, the fear behind the accusers would be more than understandable if they had been witness to the events of Director Robert Egger’s The VVitch, one of the best horror films of the decade (which has produced quite a good amount of horror classics).
Set in New England during the 1600s (a prime time of witch hunting), God fearing William (Ralph Ineson) and his Katherine (Kate Dickie) are kicked out of the local puritan village after accusing the villagers of being false Christians. Along with their five children, they set out to edge of the forest to start anew (“We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us.”). While it is clear that the family tries as hard as they can to be humble servants of God, things begin to slowly fall apart for them, as their newborn baby Samuel vanishes without a trace.
While the family believes a wolf had taken the baby, we the audience learn right away that it is indeed a witch (no real spoilers, since that is the title). What causes the sudden mysterious acts soon leads to the members of the family blaming each other, including Katherine, the oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and even the young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). The only two who seem to start having a cool level head about it is William and his second born son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw).
The imagery of the film is terrifying (only amped up by the searing soundtrack). What Eggers does so wonderfully (alone with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke) is there is little to no added light to any of the scenes: it is all purely natural (which is fitting, since electricity was nonexistent at the time). When you revisit the film (if you are not too frightened), you can honestly almost stop paying attention the narrative and just look at the artistry of the landscapes and texture of all that is onscreen. It is said that there needs to be darkness in order for light to shine, and the example here is pitch perfect. In short, it is breathtaking.
One of the true hidden gems of the film is how the script (also written by Robert Eggers) uses the common speech of the times, yet it does not confuse us. When we hear phrases like “Wouldst thou…” and “thy”, we may at first be a bit uneasy (since no one uses those phrases anymore). However, it does not take us long to put that aside and realize that we not just watching some English pilgrims talking weird: we are watching humans experiencing emotions both relatable and terrifying.
When it comes to horror films, one of the crucial elements is the pacing. A close friend of mine (and horror film fan) told me that, while he likes this film, he thought it went a little slow. I told him I thought it was perfectly paced. While other cheap horror films try to give you a lot of “gotcha!” moments all over the place, the true great horror films build the suspense, and (as Hitchcock would say) play you like a piano.
All of the performances are highly affective, but the three that stand out are Ineson, Taylor-Joy, and Scrimshaw. Ineson’s William is indeed loving but still firm, making sure his family knows he will put God first in any circumstances. Though I have not seen him in anything since, Scrimshaw still shows talent beyond his young years (especially in one scene). Overall, it is Anya Taylor-Joy who steals the show, and is still showing promise of being a star in the making (since this film, she went on to star in 2016’s Split and 2019’s Glass, both by M. Night Shyamalan).
Parents, this film is High School and above, by far. There is haunting imagery that will scare people of any age, not to mention some rather graphic (albeit brief and mostly non sexual) nudity. Kids today may think of witches as something intriguing (no doubt due to Harry Potter), but this deals with the true horror of the nature of witches. It makes you realize for certain why the bible did say to stay away from witchcraft.
As the movie progresses, we find out that each member of the family has hidden sin to confess (even Caleb). For Christians, unconfessed sin is a bad thing, and something that Satan always will feed off of (not just a witch). While God always wins over Satan, the movie shows what can happen when true evil takes over. That is the true horror of the film.
That, and the goat and rabbit. Those will plague you for sometime.