Witches are usually of somewhere else in American pop culture. The Wicked Witch of the West torments the creatures of Oz, a technicolor dreamworld with munchkins, flying monkeys and trees that throw their own apples at passers-by. The three witches of Macbeth are of a Scottish highland or moor or rolling green hill, appearing out of the mist and receding back in to it after delivering their prophecy to the great general.
When witches are American, they tend to either be good -- think Samantha in Bewitched -- or at worst cartoonishly evil -- think the three sisters in Hocus Pocus. The threat, the fear, the terror of witchcraft -- it is typically viewed through a modern lens, which means it is treated as unserious.
This is an interesting phenomenon given that hysteria over witchcraft is one of the single most discussed historical events of the pre-Revolutionary era in the U.S. To the people that settled on the Atlantic seaboard, especially in New England, witches and witchcraft were very real, and to be treated with the gravest solemnity.
Robert Eggers’ The Witch is the first film I can think of to capture that mood, and it is captured perfectly. Subtitled A New-England Folktale, Eggers, who wrote and directed the film, delivers an eerie, real-feeling, deeply unsettling vision of witchcraft in the New World. Witches aren’t supposed to be frightening anymore -- not to adults who’ve long since gotten past the green-makeup-and-pointy-hat version put forth in The Wizard of Oz -- but this tale turns all of that on its head.
The Witch begins with a banishment. William, his wife Katherine and their five children, including a newborn, are being turned out from their plantation, apparently because William’s excessive piety has caused conflict with fellow villagers. How pious must this man be to have been too religious for the Puritans of a 17th century settlement in New England? We’re about to get a taste.
After the gates close behind William and his brood, they settle in a non-descript patch of wilderness with their animals -- chickens, a horse, a goat -- and, with none of the support that the plantation can offer, stubbornly try to scrape out enough of a harvest to last the winter. The open territory feels like a prison. It is a New England autumn, so it’s always gray. The corn harvest is not going well. William’s children are ill-equipped to support such a go-it-alone attempt at survival. The oldest son Caleb is charged with trapping animals to build up a supplemental food supply, yet he’s about a third of the size of the musket he totes around. The youngest aside from the newborn, twins Jonas and Mercy, seem only capable of winding each other up. Thomasin, the eldest, gives in too easily to her frustration with her siblings to be much help keeping the house in order.
William exudes stern, haughty providence, even as the cracks all around him start to show. When the newborn, Samuel, is plucked, quite literally, from right under Thomasin’s nose never to be seen again, their fragile situation comes unraveled.
We know, because Eggers shows us, that Samuel meets a grisly fate somewhere in the forest. We don’t know exactly how grisly it is, nor do we know what creature or crone is perpetrating the heinous act. There are bonfires and silhouettes and the vague hint of a blood sacrifice. You let your imagination do most of the legwork.
The family, however, does not know what’s become of Samuel, just that he is gone. In a way, that seems to nudge them toward a much worse fate -- toward a collective madness that makes them even more ripe a target for whatever forces in the woods might want to prey on them. The matriarch Katherine is devastated. Thomasin seems to shoulder the blame herself while also taking the tacit blame heaped upon her by the rest of her family. The twins, perhaps jarred by their isolation and the disappearance of their younger brother, find an imaginary friend amongst their livestock.
Weird things start happening, but they are weird and mundane all at once. Caleb steals glances at his sister’s bosom. Thomasin tells the twins an altogether-innocent seeming fib about being a witch, one that seems designed to scare them, but, by the end of the film, also seems too well rehearsed to have been merely an impromptu scare tactic. The twins prattle on about their goat, the forebodingly named Black Phillip. They are saying very strange, very unsettling things, but their very words are obscured by the childlike delivery of them -- all snot-nosed and shrieky. William, the man taking the Bible too seriously for a bunch of Puritans, encourages Caleb to tell a white lie and doesn’t intercede when Thomasin tells another on his behalf. He buries himself in manual labor, most memorably by compulsively splitting logs at different moments during the film. This dark cloud gathers over his homestead, and all he seems able to do is chop, chop, chop -- thwack, thwack, tha-whack. These are the moments -- these throbbing punctuations -- that make the conclusion seem inevitable even as it is also stunning.
Mundanity is not celebrated at the expense of fright. The Witch has all manner of moments designed to make you squirm, from the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t disappearance of Samuel to a goat that gives off blood in place of milk to a child expectorating some sort of tangible evil from his mouth. Those moments seem all the more chilling because they materialize out of almost nothing -- they are conjured out of a family that, superficially at least, really and earnestly seems to just be trying to survive.
For me at least, this is what defines great horror. In The Witch, the supernatural seems so very natural. Hard as it might be to think in a 17th-century mindset, this film makes you feel like William and Katherine and Caleb and Thomasin could have been real colonists, on board one of the ships that closely followed the Mayflower to Massachusetts. Beyond that, this begins to make you understand how the Salem Witch Trials could have ever happened. A belief Satan was very real, a bit of bad luck and the isolation of the New World might make witchcraft seem like a plausible explanation for some otherwise unexplainable events.
It’s hard to say enough about everything that went in to this film. The actors will be barely familiar to most, save perhaps Kate Dickie, who played a quite similar character, Lysa Arryn, on Game of Thrones. Ralph Ineson, also a GoT alum, in particular is terrific, his gruff, humorless approach to the role of William perfect for one that requires just those attributes in spades. Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomasin, meanwhile, manages to be the de facto heroine while also doing just enough to make the audience feel uncomfortable in backing her.
It is Eggers, though, who might be the biggest breakout star of all. The Witch is a transporting, trance-like experience, an intoxicating bit of horror that is subtle and gradual until the precise moment that it needs to be pulsing and direct. It leaves plenty to the imagination, banking on the fact that the less you know for sure about the forces tearing this family apart, the more disturbed you’ll be at the end. In that sense, The Witch is right on the money.