Following in the footsteps of Witchfinder General and Black Death, writer/director Robert Egger’s The Witch is a resolutely bleak piece of period cinema. Selling itself as “a New-England folktale”, the story centres around a puritan family, cast out from society, and set upon by the manipulations of a witch of the woods.
Like those films, The Witch is an exercise in building a constant, relentless tone in ever present dread. From the start the family’s isolated homestead, failing crops and the foggy, wet forest clearing make for a gripping atmosphere. It’s so effective that one leaves the cinema practically feeling the cold and damp.
The actors are without fault, wonderfully playing characters who are trapped and tricked by their own religious beliefs. Ralph Ineson, specifically as William, is great as the patriarch: a despairing father who has damned his own offspring, locked in a cycle of mutual mental torment with his wife for their failure to fulfil their own stringent Christian code. Lead Anya Taylor-Joy is fantastic as Tomasin as well, the eldest daughter who inwardly and outwardly flirts with mischief that make her a heretical target for her own family. Their northern English accents not only add to the historical accuracy of the piece, but bring a gritty stoicism to the dramatic dialogue, shot through with “thee”s, “thou”s, and “thy”s.
The presence of the actual witchcraft is restrained, sneaking its way into the family’s lives through domestic and wild animals, whispering in their ears and confusing their minds. The group’s descent into madness is already well poised by their religion, the real horror started by themselves when they conclude their own child must languish in Hell. All it takes is for the malevolent forces to give it a push now and then. The Witch is a delicious horror. See it when it’s widely released in February 2016.