I want to start by saying that in no way am I a horror genre enthusiast nor do I willingly seek out to watch movies in the genre or any subsequent sub-genre that may inhabit it. That said, lately, I have been dipping a toe or two into the horror ocean of films with a bit of curiosity as to being more open-minded and willing to experience new things. Hopefully, the curiosity in me doesn’t kill me – It’s not that the subject matter is particularly scary, even action movies have a jump scare or two, the genre never appealed to my taste, but tastes change, and opinions evolve – so here we are.
When it comes to the few films in the horror genre that I have seen and thus have loved and gushed over, what stands out to me the most is the suspense built from the atmosphere. That, to me is what makes a horror film great – If the environment is created correctly, that’s easily more terrifying than any slasher film and a cheap jump scare. First time writer/director Robert Eggers creates an environment so easily terrifying in his directorial debut The Witch (stylized as The VVitch) that any type of horrific event becomes elevated when playing out on screen. In fact, there isn’t a single jump scare to be found in the 93-minute film.
But within those 93 minutes is a lot to unpack to either embrace or conceal your eyes behind your palms or a pillow. What The VVitch lacks in jump scares it makes up for with an uneasy, disturbing, and unsettling vibe that is too gross to want to miss it. This is my kind of horror film – crossing into a psychological fare with elements of a horror film resulting in an easier time getting through it all. But it’s still a creepy ride from start to finish – a well crafted and beautifully shot ride at that from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke.
Set in 1630’s New England, a few decades before the famous Salem Witch Trials began, a family is banished from their puritan colony over a religious dispute – honestly what other kind of dispute could there be during this period? Settler William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) build a farm at their opening of a secluded forest. When the unbaptized newborn Samuel goes mysteriously missing one day in Thomasin’s care, the presumed death tears the family apart from the inside out – turning the family’s faith against them and love to hatred.
The beauty of The VVitch comes from within – how the family self-destructs with every event starting with Samuel’s disappearance. Citing it on witchcraft, the twins talk to a goat named Black Phillip (come on a black goat is synonymous with the Devil in all mediums of entertainment) and accuse Thomasin of being a witch. Lies, greed, sexuality, independence, and faith all turn each family member against one another which builds the case for the supernatural to infect each member one by one until the family dies off.
This family didn’t stand a chance the moment they were banished from their home.
Snowballing out of control, The VVitch is a series of extremely unfortunate events that have been researched heavily by Eggers. True or not, Eggers makes this film feel authentic to the period with an extra emphasis on the dialogue and language in which this family speaks. In which case the casting is spot on with two Game of Thrones alumni in Ralph and Kate who both turn hauntingly accurate performances of a mother and father with no clue on how to stop the chaos surrounding them. Part of it is William’s fault for lying every chance he gets and part of it is the faith of the family and how blinded they are because of it.
And though they turn out great performances, the film is powerfully led by Anya Taylor-Joy in her debut film. She easily commands the screen with her charisma. Every line of dialogue she has will draw the viewer in and hang on everything she says.
Possibly the biggest strength of The VVitch is in its authenticity. Eggers shooting in a remote location with natural light only heightens the horror without showing any actual evil taking place. Just the built-up tension and anticipation while cutting away to leave a lasting effect on the viewer than showing the murders. Within the psychological horror is verisimilitude – the events that play out are believable to the gullibility of the people of this time. How else could a missing child be presumed on a single-family farm with no one around for miles other than Witchcraft. Of course, there is disturbing discoveries of the family dog Fowler and the climatic deaths that come in the third act.
The VVitch is not for everyone nor the faint-hearted. If you’re like me (exploring a genre with cautious optimism) Robert Eggers debut feature is a good starting point. Not overtly scary in an explicitly showing manner, The VVitch’s horror lies within the imagination of it all. Letting the viewer see up until the last possible moment and cutting away as the moment happens is truly a terrifying experience. Disturbing, unsettling, and weird with a grounded sense of verisimilitude and fantastic performances by the family, Robert Eggers creates an anticipation-based suspense in a slow burn that lasts 93 minutes. I’m eager to see where his career takes him.
I’m totally game for more New England Folktales.
Written By: Robert Eggers
Directed By: Robert Eggers
Music By: Mark Korven
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger & Lucas Dawson
Release Date: January 27, 2015 (Sundance), February 19, 2016 (United States)
Running Time: 1 Hour 32 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
My Score: 4.5 out of 5