“Trouble us, no more.”
As a life long fan of the horror genre, I’ve become somewhat disillusioned as of late with the films being released with that label. Sure, there are a few gems here and there, last year’s We Are Still Here is a particular favourite of mine; a terrifying nightmare piece that genuinely scared me and had me shifting my arse up the stairs super fast that night in terror. Sadly, most horror films don’t do this to me. Part of it may be that I’ve been soaking myself in horror films for so many years that there isn’t much that makes me jump any more. But I think, more than that, is that the market has been saturated with paint-by-numbers Lionsgate garbage made by accountants and marketers for the biggest gross at the lowest possible cost.
Enter, stage left, Robert Eggers’ The Witch.
Subtitled “A New England Folktale”, Eggers’ debut feature film is set in the early part of the 17th century; a time when religious belief and prayer surpassed logic and common sense and the entire new world led their lives by the teachings of the church. To speak out against those in charge is to be branded a heretic and find yourself banished. That’s exactly what has happened to William – Ralph Ineson, veteran of almost every British TV show you can think of – who has spoken out against his church, and he and his family have been thrown out of their plantation.
Trying to make a life for themselves on the edge of an almost impassable forest, the family – that includes Game of Thrones‘ Kate Dickie and relative unknown Anya Taylor-Joy – struggle from day-to-day with poor crops, no wildlife to hunt and just a general lack of amenities in their secluded little farm. Things start to spiral uncontrollably for the family when their youngest son, Sam, disappears under bizarre circumstances. With no trace of the infant, the family attempts to move on without answers but seem to be constantly stopped in their tracks by the strange goings-on around them and the ever more likely chance of there being a witch living in the woods near where they’ve made their home.
The smart thing about The Witch is how it purposefully avoids all the traits of modern horror. With almost no blood and absolutely nothing in the way of cheap jump scares, Robert Eggers has created a film to satisfy even the most jaded of horror fans. Setting the film in the 1630’s, and using almost all naturally available light for the shoot, the film looks eerily washed out in every frame, upping the creepy factor using nothing but the naturally occurring shadows.
Scarier than anything else, however, is the religious undertone the whole film has. Set some sixty years before the famous Salem Witch Trials, The Witch is a terrifying look at how it’s possible to delude yourself into making things worse with the religion that is the basis of the society you live in – a problem that is still very much there in some parts of the world we live in today, I’m guessing that’s kind of the point of this film – as the family refuse to do the sensible thing and leave the cursed farm and instead choose to live under God’s protection, knowing that he will protect them and keep the evil around them from harming them. And even as the opposite becomes abundantly apparent, the family’s delusion is still stronger than whatever lies in the forest.
As a debut feature, in any genre, The Witch is stunning. Its $3.5 million budget (a little over a third of the bloody awful The Forest‘s purse) spread perfectly in making an outstanding little flick. But as a horror film, it’s an absolute masterclass. With zero jump scares and no blood and gore, the film relies completely on the nail biting atmosphere it creates and the nerve shredding, creeped out feeling it leaves you with long after the final scene has gone dark.
Horror is, for the most part, one of those subjective genres. Some will head to the cinema based on the praise The Witch is getting and decide it’s complete guff because there’s no blood, guts and torture. For those people, fear not, there is a new Saw film in the works. But, if tension and atmosphere are your thing, The Witch will be right up your street.