On its release in 2016, The Witch received instant classic status, and for good reason. The film’s commitment to authentically reinterpreting classic folk stories of witches living among us tapped into a growing rebirth and reappraisal of folk horror, helping to bring this revival to the mainstream. Director Robert Eggers managed to parlay the power these stories had in their day into a thoroughly modern fancy that pierced the public lexicon, elevating Black Phillip and his delicious catchphrase to meme infamy, along with catapulting the relatively low-key and low-budget fledgling feature into a household name.
It’s clear that Eggers worked hard to create a film faithful to the thousands of tales of bewitchments and possessions that preceded it, taking his favourite elements from existing stories into his, just as the word-of-mouth network that broadcast witchcraft throughout the Old World and the colonies would. This collage approach to filmmaking fosters a feeling of the familiar, even though this particular story has never been told quite like this.
The Witch tells the fairly simple story of a puritan family who are thrown into turmoil when their youngest is snatched by a witch that lives in the woods next to their farm. The family soon begins to combust through mistrust and insanity, as Eggers layers in doubt, darkness and elements of the supernatural. The film plays with you as the family descends into religious mania; the audience has seen the crone in the woods bathing in baby blood, yet we still doubt and wonder if their devoutness is causing the family to plummet into the witch hysteria that so many succumbed to.
The commitment to authenticity didn’t stop with the story. Eggers worked with historians specialising in farming, thatching and language from this time period. Not all viewers have the capacity to grasp the authenticity of the thatched roofs, but the convincing interpretation of rural life in the late 1600s effectively helps to create an aura of the historic, the familiar and the unworldly.
Seemingly period-accurate dialogue generally works well, having found the fine line between revisionism and trusting the audience. It helps that it’s largely delivered by capable actors, particularly Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson. Dickie and Ineson are strongest as they both succumb to the insanity of mistrust, but ultimately Dickie runs away with it, every line she utters crackling with emotion and intensity.
It’s rare for a new filmmaker to come fully formed, but Eggers gets close. A singularity of purpose empowered him to channel the small budget into what really mattered here: an overriding feeling of unease. He did himself no favours by choosing to shoot in a remote location on the edge of a forest and by only using natural light sources to illuminate the film, but it was all done in service of creating a genuine foreboding and oppressive climate that engulfs the story and its characters.
This comes at the expense of some scenes that could have benefitted from more takes. These brief moments of wobbly performance are few and far between but manage to shake your covenant with The Witch for just long enough that it has to work overtime to put you back under its spell. However, the film always manages to work its way back under your skin, particularly as it tumbles towards its horrifying third act.
The Witch was instrumental in typifying the slow-burn, low-key approach we have come to expect in this era of ‘elevated horror’, but while the visual palette borrows from high-brow independent films and the dialogue may give an illusion of elevation, it is a dirty, violent and difficult film in the true genre tradition.
BLU-RAY & UHD
25 July 2022