The Salem Witch Trials were a shocking demonstration of what happens when fear and suspicion run rampant. The Witch is a shocking demonstration of what happens when that fear and suspicion turn out to be all too well-founded. The directorial debut of Robert Eggers, this Sundance favourite is an intense, unrelenting horror, rich with period detail and thematic underpinning.
The film centres on a family in New England, 1630, recent settlers in the New World striking it out on their own. Forced out of the nearest plantation following an unspecified religious conflict, the unshakeably devout family must fend for themselves, facing rotting crops, the onset of winter and the foreboding woods bordering their land.
The problems begin in earnest when their youngest child disappears while under the care of eldest Thomasin (a remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy). From there the torments only build, tearing the family apart through suspicion, and ultimately just tearing them apart rather more literally.
Eggers’ smart, sparse script leaves the characters in the dark about the supernatural forces at work even while allowing the audience a glimpse of the real threat, adding weight and dread to the inevitable infighting and accusations of pacts with the devil.
The early settlers period is one under-utilised by cinema, and Eggers makes the most of the space vacated by other filmmakers. Dialogue is drawn in part from authentic period sources, and is consistently rich and evocative. The focussed locale allows for detailed production design, the costumes and buildings setting the tone for the rest of the film.
The family’s devout, uncompromising Christian faith may be more well-trod thematic ground, but The Witch finds thoughtful elements to work with. It wisely eschews the well-known methods of the Salem Witch Trials (which took place some 60-odd years later), instead examining the power of strict religious belief to create barriers inside the family unit, to erode trust in each other in favour of faith in the Lord, all with the constant spectre of eternal damnation lurking in the background.
The film’s horror elements are a slow burn, but the mood is set early by Mark Korven’s confrontational score. Screeching strings and howling vocals assault the audience from the film’s opening sequence onwards, maintaining excruciating tension throughout even while the action progresses at a cautious pace.
The Witch is a frightening debut feature for Eggers, evidence of a distinctive cinematic voice with plenty to say. It’s not subtle, but it doesn’t want to be – it just wants to scare the shit out of you.
Words by Dominic Preston
The Witch screens at the BFI London Film Festival on the 12th and 14th October.