In the Old Testament, the Book of Job tells the story of a righteous man whose family is put to the ultimate test of faith by the devil, by infliction of the harshest disasters that make him search for answers. Eventually, his faith survives the test and his family is led to salvation by God, who remains strikingly silent in this dark tale of a family that calls back to Job’s. While reviewing last year’s excellent Goodnight Mommy, I mentioned how twins hold a significant place in horror conventions, but there is a far more marked motif that births some of the genre’s most haunting work: religion. Combining these two terrifying elements, and going a step further than most films before it, is Robert Egger’s The Witch, the phenomenal experiment in atmospheric disturbia that bagged him the Best Director award at Sundance this year. Set in the age of Christian Puritanism and suppression of female individualism, this home-run in visual story-telling tracks the horrific undoing of a family that petrifies the viewer by drawing them into the darkest fairytale put to screen in a long time.
The Witch tells the story of a family banished from the English plantation where they lived, for the crime of ‘prideful conceit’ by the father William (Ralph Ineson), which went against the strictly Puritan community of the time. Driven to the wilderness surrounding a forest, where seemingly no crops grow, and without the comforts of society, the family is reduced to spending its days in penance and misery. Although without a clear protagonist, the story seems to follow Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who inevitably has to bear the weight of the household chores as well as taking care of the younger children, for being the eldest daughter. When the new baby Samuel disappears from the edge of the woods, the family starts suspecting an unnatural presence lurking in the environment, testing and punishing them. This is a film centered not on the eponymous witch, but the family itself, and the mutual unrest and doubt that arises among them, and in this way, works as an intricately executed drama of characters in the clutches of a darkness they cannot escape from. As an audience, we find ourselves not being able to turn our eyes away, as the hunger, isolation and growing depression erode the already strained bonds holding them together.
While the plot may seem a little slow at the start, not a moment is wasted in gradually turning up the wickedness of the wilderness, which becomes a character all of its own, evoking terror not only in the members of the family, but those of the audience. Filled to the brim with clever, subtle biblical metaphors, and calling to mind the infamous paintings by Francesco Goya, Eggers’ debut film is a masterpiece in its own right. Combining a thorough understanding of 17th century New England and its folklores with the demonic references in ancient texts such as the Bible, the director has here crafted a truly masterful piece that pits the religious conservatism of the time against sinful temptation. Neither side presents a pretty picture in this film that takes ‘dark’ to a whole new level, what with the religious prosecution of women in the Salem Witch Trials finding representation through the characters of the story. In fact, almost every event and character in The Witch is pregnant with profound symbolism, from the character of the witch itself being a metaphor for the temptation of sin, rather than a generic horror movie monster, to various scenes involving the father representing his pretentious masculinity. In fact, the contrast between the male dominance and female suppression within the family, as a reflection of the times, is the other significant motif narrated by the filmmaker. The irony is made evident through the father’s inability to provide and the daughter’s unwillingness to serve, in stark contrast to what was expected of their roles in the family, especially when the children learn of the parents’ intention to sell Thomasin off to another family, as per the practice at the time.
Horror is more effective in generating, well, horror, when it plays with the viewer’s mind by inserting nuances and leading them into a world of insecurity, which they do not realise until they have reached it. The Witch is not only depravedly tempting to engulf its viewer in the dark foreboding of its world, but also so subtle in its execution that the terror is felt in every nerve without sudden peaks and valleys of scares. Eggers employs a relentless atmosphere that turns your blood cold just by being in it, without need for splattering of blood or for shadowy figures to step out of the darkness, harking back to the cold, claustrophobic environment of the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining. You will often find frames of the woods – seemingly ready to produce some growling creature from its innards – gradually zooming in or out to the mirrored rise in soundtrack, inducing a sense of dread and premonition of a sudden scare, which never comes. However, this also means you cannot expect to be at the edge of your seat throughout, as it does give replace fear with curiosity in many a place. The director makes it a point to never give into that temptation of immediate satisfaction of the fear, as it means an inevitable release from the clutches of the film in the subsequent comedown. The audience is instead treated to one and a half hours of pure unease, as the dark images playing out on screen scream something unnatural and bizarre. It is just as the mother says at one point: the devil speaks scriptures too, as what we see unfolding is also a twisted tale of breaking free, as Thomasin is caught between the oppression and crushing of individualism from her family, and the temptingly masked seduction by sin.
A story of the destruction of a family, paralleling the Book of Job mentioned several times in the film, tempted by sin and driven into it by the depression of their survival, played to a haunting soundtrack of cries and wails, and where the foreboding refuses to be shaken off: that is what Robert Eggers presents to us in his debut film. The Witch is mysterious and depraved just enough to invite its viewer to lean in, only to find the horror staring back at them from the woods. Expertly putting to use his research in 17th century dialects and myths, and telling a story that raises very troubling questions with regard to the Salem Witch Trials and the blaring sexism of the times, the director proves his understanding of thought-provoking horror that does not simply jump out of the shadows to make you jump. Following in the disturbing legacy of The Crucible, Beyond the Hills, and The Exorcist, this brilliantly directed feature is an experiment in combining fear of the ungodly, the unnatural and the human, that is sure to not leave the viewer’s minds long after the credits have rolled.