The Witch (stylized as “The VVitch”) is destined to be divisive. Robert Eggers’ directorial debut is a slow burner, and shies away from the conventions of horror films. It lacks the jump scares and revelatory crescendo that most horror films deliver, and requires an open mind and patience to truly appreciate. The pace of The Witch will disappoint many thrill-seeking filmgoers, but that does not mean it’s lacking in scares. In fact, it’s one of the most unnerving films ever made, and will linger with you long after you leave the theater.
Based in folk traditions, The Witch tells the tale of a Puritan family who are exiled from their plantation home and must start afresh in the wilderness of New England. Once the family settles, strange and terrifying things begin to happen, starting with the abduction of baby Samuel, the youngest member of the family. Thus begins the steady decline of the family, and in a well-placed act of dramatic irony, we are made aware of the cause. The Witch informs you well in advance that there is indeed evil in the woods, and Samuel’s fate is a sequence that will convince you of its potency.
Much like the Puritan lifestyle, The Witch is simplistic in its design. No CGI effects are used throughout the film, and it feels very organic and raw. The setting is made up entirely of the family’s homestead and the forest that surrounds it, and the movie employs gratuitous long shots that create a never-ending sense of tension and impending doom. The costume and set designs are brilliant, and are complemented by dialogue that is prose-like and poetic. This was one of my favorite parts of the film, for each line is gorgeously crafted and lyrical, and is a joy to listen to. The score is sparing but nail-bitingly intense when used, and solidifies the relentlessly ominous tone of the film.
The supernatural elements of The Witch are handled extremely well. Far from being the typical boogieman that jumps out screaming, the evil in The Witch feels like a force of nature. Its manifestations are subtle, menacing, unpredictable, and irrational at their core. Such abstract villainy can easily be mistranslated in the medium of film, but Egger has crafted a vision of this evil that is tangible yet incomprehensible, and for this reason The Witch shines. It does not make you leap out of your seat, but it does make you sink into it, wishing you could find safety when it is very clear there is none to be found.
The Witch also looks closely at the spiritual beliefs of the time, and the repercussions that intense theology can have on a secluded family. Though the family is enamored with the ideas of love and eternal life, the prospect of the original sin is never far from their minds, and their self-imposed certainty of a life in hell drives them to do terrible things. Watching the madness unfold is all the more horrific because it is based in fact, on a society that used to think in such a singular way. The actors portray this world beautifully and draw you into its torrid lunacy even before the supernatural begins to encroach on their lives.
Director Robert Eggers has done his research well, and has been able to create a believable film as a result, one that blends the historical with the fantastical. While its slow pace may turn off some viewers, The Witch is a harrowing journey that is certainly worth experiencing, and a film every horror fan should make an effort to see.