The jump scare is dead, or at least I hope it is. Rare are the filmmakers who can actually make a jump scare seem like it comes from a genuine place of terror, instead of “quiet…quiet…quiet…LOUD!” without any dread or foreboding to back it up. I’m glad, then, that we’re transitioning into an age when filmmakers are actually trying to scare us again, on a deep level. Taking us beyond merely being startled, beyond wanton viscera, and right down to the heart of what scares, scandalizes, and sticks with us. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen Robert Eggers’ film The Witch and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
Eggers based the story of the film around actual New England folktales from the 1600s, drawing on the Puritans’ fear of black magic and Satan, and so it’s higher on believability than most other horror movies of its type. It shows us just enough and keeps the rest in the shadows, in the woods, or simply in our minds. And though some of the imagery is haunting and creepy, what perhaps stands out the most is the way the evil in the story is able to corrupt a seemingly devout family by casting doubt on each of them in turn.
The film begins with a family of Puritans who’ve made the cross-oceanic move to New England in the 1630s. The patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson) has not gotten along with the members of the village and decides to take his family out into the woods to set up a new homestead and farm. He takes his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children—ranging from the eldest girl Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) down to an infant—out into a clearing near a very dark wood where they attempt to live, work, and pray on their own.
After some time, though, things do not go well. The crops do not seem to be growing and William has little to do each day but chop firewood. At one point, Thomasin plays peek-a-boo with the baby and it disappears (we see what happens to it and who took her and it’s pretty shocking). After that, Katherine forbids anyone from going into the woods, but needs are as they are. The world seems to be conspiring against them, even the animals themselves—chief among them a scrawny rabbit in the woods who harbingers bad things, and an ornery old billy goat named Black Phillip who the six-year-old twins whisper to every day.
It’s certainly not a pleasant experience watching a family be slowly torn apart by tragedy and distrust, but that’s what makes the horror of The Witch so effective. You get the sense that if they were a little more devoted to each other—perhaps a little less duplicitous or inwardly spiteful—they might in fact have been able to escape the evil forces around them. Characters exhibit some of the qualities of the deadly sins themselves, from pride to envy to lust, and these inevitably lead to misfortune for them, even has they tearfully cry to their Christian God who has seemingly forsaken them.
For those worried, you definitely do get to see the titular Witch, though fleetingly, and she is indeed the stuff of nightmares. But we get the sense that she — and whatever higher evil force she represents — is merely opportunistic, and the real suffering the family endures is at their own hands; they’re systemically broken and denying it even to themselves, which just makes it all the more tragic, though fitting, when they start seeing true evil.
The performances are all wonderful. Ineson, Dickie, and Taylor-Joy are so real and raw that they make even the period dialogue believable. I will say, with their thick Northern English accents on top of the “thou hast”-style of speaking, it does take a minute to fully grasp what is being said, but you certainly get the gist as your ear gets attuned. I also want to single out Harvey Scrimshaw who plays the 12-year-old son Caleb: He has to do some amazingly challenging physical acting and recite fairly cumbersome dialogue, and he does so remarkably well.
Those accustomed to seeing jumpy, shouty, easy horror movies might not find The Witch as terrifying as they might otherwise, but if you give in to the dark magic of the filmmaking, and Eggers’ attention to detail and specificity, I think it will end up being one of the best horror movies of the year. Shocking, eerie, doom-laden, and discomforting, it’s a horror movie that truly gets under your skin.
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!