Release: 18th July 2016
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
In 1630 New England, panic and despair envelops a farmer (Ralph Ineson), his wife (Kate Dickie) and four of their children when youngest son Samuel suddenly vanishes. The family blames Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the oldest daughter who was watching the boy at the time of his disappearance. With suspicion and paranoia mounting, twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) suspect Thomasin of witchcraft, testing the clan’s faith, loyalty and love to one another.
There is an interesting coincidence in that Robert Eggers’ The Witch is reaching Blu-Ray and DVD that same day as Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise. It has nothing to do with content you’ll understand, though both are a social commentary on the abuse of ‘lower classes’. The coincidence comes in that Billericay’s favourite auteur and Hollywood’s new kid on the block clearly share an affinity for 70’s British horror, and it shines through in each of their latest films.
The Witch has a distinct DNA comparable with the likes of Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man and The Devils. The comparisons go beyond a mere cosmetic similarity; especially as The Witch is far from concerned with the actual practice of witchcraft or the worship of the unholy. There is a mud soaked lunacy about these films. The Witch finds itself in the company of a specific breed of cinema that feels more like documentary filmmaking than fictional storytelling. From the dialogue to the production design, and even with Mark Korven’s haunting soundtrack, not a single detail is wasted in making The Witch feel like a living, breathing piece of history. And it is ultimately this sense of realism that allows the film to creep under your skin, where it sits comfortably torturing you for days after. It’s a tense, immersive, unnerving experience.
But as wonderful as The Witch is, I am sure Black Philip would have something to say if I didn’t at least introduce some negativity into this critique. The film is not a conventional horror in that it is a world away from the high concept joys of say The Conjuring. The Witch rewards patience and empathy. It is a story of paranoia, and functions on buying that people unravel in pieces not wholes. This makes the 3rd act more fulfilling, but means that the journey there could be rather bland for a more impatient or unwitting viewer. The Witch may not be as well-crafted as The Shining or The Thing, but both are clearly touchstones for inspiration. The fact that the film fritters away a lot of its smarts with a rather ham-fisted closing sequence detracts from its brilliance.
In terms of cast, Eggers couldn’t have asked for a better group. Anya Taylor-Joy imbues with Thomasin with a heady cocktail of innocence, aggression, sexuality, impudence and darkness that pushes her back and forth between protagonist and antagonist throughout the film. Ralph Ineson gives the performance of a lifetime, stepping as far away from ‘Finchy’ as you can imagine. His turn as William is wrought with pain and frustration. If ever a man felt like he’d embodied a time and place in history, Ineson IS the spiritual awakening of Puritanical America. Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw are also outstanding; both afford a standout scene of insanity. But the unsung treasure of the film remains Ellie Grainger. Her character may be called Mercy, but she shows none. Possibly the most terrifying little character since the chick in the red coat from Don’t Look Now. Which, as chance would have it, is yet another 70’s horror from the shores of Blighty. Clearly living deliciously in that period was not really an option.
Film Grade: B+
Much like baby Samuel the additional material is missing. A hex on whoever made that choice.
Special Features Grade: F
The Witch is a welcome and distressing breath of fresh air. Just a pity we cannot delve beyond it in to some special features.