The Witch challenges the deepest recesses of the mind to separate actual supernatural terror from the historical record on religious hysteria. Think of it as a horror film for American History buffs.
The Witch is one of the most unsettling films ever made, about a Puritan family alone in the 1630’s New England wilderness, after banishment from their settlement over a religious dispute. The parents, William and Katherine exile themselves from their community, taking with them their children (oldest daughter Thomasin and her brother Caleb, and young twins, Jonas and Mercy.) They build their rudimentary home on the outskirts of an isolated woods, and months later welcome a baby boy to the family, named Samuel. One day, as Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with her baby brother, he disappears into thin air, an event which sets in motion a string of tragedies and mishaps that spiral out of control, pitting family members against each other in a whirlwind of moral suspicion and demonic accusation, ending in a shattering sequence of violence. Or is it more?
The story is told through the perspective of Thomasin (in an astonishing breakout performance by Anya Taylor-Joy) who begins the story as a complete innocent (unfairly accused and victimized by her alarmingly fanatic family) whose eyes are opened to the degrading truths hiding beneath their God-fearing skins, and hers too. The tension builds slowly – and so does Thomasin’s paranoia – as she finds herself at the center of one mysterious malady after another. The story crescendos in one of the most devastating and surreal endings ever, which can be interpreted as a complete descent into madness or as a supernatural ascent into evil.
From one angle, The Witch is a fascinating account of Puritan religious mania, patriarchal repression, sexual guilt, and even subversive feminist angst. It can be easily dissected as a tragic case of what can happen when a certain kind of family is too isolated and bad luck turns into something more sinister. From another angle, it’s a supernatural horror faithfully steeped in the annals of history, made all the more terrifying for the elements of the story that are already familiar to us through the literature of the times.
In a shockingly masterful achievement for a first-time director, Robert Eggers (who also wrote the script) has said of his overriding theme in making The Witch, if he had to create a “Puritan nightmare”, this would be it. Uber Horror storyteller Stephen King seems to concur, stating that, “The Witch scared the hell out of me. And it’s a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral”. And because this is very much a historical period film, Eggers and his production crew were painstaking in researching period artifacts, texts, diaries and court records from the day, working with both American and British museums, as well as experts on 17th century farming and homesteading practices. Indeed, the early British accents – not to mention the arcane linguistic constructs of the dialogue – can be a challenge to decipher at times. The entire movie is done so exactingly, from Craig Laithrop’s authentic set design to costumes and lighting (no artificial light was used; all interiors shot in candlelight, kudos to DP Jarin Blaschke ) that the effect is quite experiential, making the supernatural element in the story that much more ravishing and frightening in its simplicity. Add to that the strange, dizzying score by Mark Korven and you’ve got a whole host of reasons to lose sleep this Halloween weekend.
The Witch is presently streaming on Amazon.
YouTube Trailer Courtesy of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQXmlf3Sefg
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