In some ways I regret seeing the Witch. A tinge of paranoia and a slight sickness have haunted me since seeing it, such is the power of Robert Egger's directorial debut. This 1600-set folk tale was a greatly anticipated and much hyped project, attracting a huge buzz at the Sundance Film Festival. And it delivers on every hope and expectation to an incredible degree.
The central family of the film, led by father William (Ralph Ineson), are introduced being expelled from their settlement for implied misdemeanours and religious overzealousness. As the family set out through the harsh and beautifully shot landscape (high praise to Jarin Blaschke for the stunning cinematography), it is instantly made clear that the Witch is not for the faint of heart. A missing family member has disturbingly grisly consequences and it is soon obvious that the settlers are far from alone.
The Witch could perhaps best be described as the demonic baby of the Shining and the Wicker Man (the latter in terms of subject matter and particularly the religious fanaticism that forms the core of both films). Achingly long shots hold the screen for agonising lengths (the influence of Kubrick clear), casting the viewer into a tense and unsettled frame of mind. The decision to shoot with natural light creates an inviting warmth to some scenes while also casting mysterious, unpredictable shadows across the walls and adding to the realism of the period setting.
In fact, Egger's film is most comparable to the recent revelation It Follows, another disturbing and powerful horror thriller that boasted some similarly impressive shots. And, just like It Follows, the Witch's score is another crucial factor the film's heightening tension.
Jarring strings, scattered rhythms and swelling swathes of dread make for one of the most effective and chilling compositions to accompany such a picture. The impending depths of the forest that lies before the family is all the more terrifying when accompanied by Mark Joven's score, adding much to the overall foreboding atmosphere of the film.
Egger's film also subtly explores themes of religious devotion and fear with admirable maturity. Being built upon hundreds of real historical documents from the period of witch trials and religious accounts, the Witch becomes a captivating look at how people of the time were influenced, with the family becoming convinced that the forest breeds supernatural evils with startling ease.
The horror genre is well known for its extremely patchy output, with the majority of films boasting stale, hokey ideas that are lazily executed. In recent times this can be largely attributed to the success of Blumhouse Productions and the popularity of their "modern horror" flicks. The Witch excels in breaking free of the recent formula, never falling back onto cheap jumpscares and awfully stilted acting. Instead, the film builds its tension at a slow, uneasy rate with long tracking shots and mysteriously gloomy images.
The Witch is definitely not for everyone and people expecting a Blair Witch Project-esque scare fest may be disappointed (as some review scores have indicated). Instead, this is a disturbing and deeply complex portrayal of the collapse of a closely knit family as evil closes in around them. In fact, Egger's film even makes you begin to doubt the existence of the supernatural and wonder whether you yourself are, like the family, a little too easily convinced. Such is the genius of the Witch, a masterful debut from the promising young Eggers.