(Republished from Sundance 2015)
There’s really a witch in The Witch. This isn’t one of those New England witch movies where you spend the whole running time wondering if the Satanic panic is real or a reflection of some issue plaguing our society today; very early in the film Robert Eggers shows us a wrinkled, gross old hag cutting up a baby and using its blood to oil up her broomstick to fly into the night.
That early appearance by the witch is a brilliant move by Eggers, who wrote his own directorial debut. Set in New England in 1630, The Witch is a slow, creepy burn that pays off spectacularly in crazy Satanic awesomeness that’s just understated enough to be elegantly chilling. By showing us up front that there really is a crone in the woods Eggers guarantees we’ll stay with him.
Not that he needs to guarantee that; the film is stylish and odd and gorgeous. Even if the movie didn’t go occult at the end the rich, detailed world that Eggers - who has worked as a production and costume designer in the past - creates is worth your attention. The Witch is tactile, with every bit of texture on the outfits tangible, every detail completely real.
William (Ralph Ineson, Harry Potter’s Amycus Carrow) is a guy too religious even for the Puritans, and he and his family are driven out of town. They set up a farm on the edge of the woods and begin a pious life. But when the witch of the woods takes their newborn things begin to unravel - the crops fail, the goats give blood instead of milk and the twins begin having long conversations with the he-goat, Black Phillip.
Black Phillip, for the record, rules.
There’s a lot about The Witch that rules. Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke frame every foggy, damp shot with exquisite precision. He builds tension and fear throughout, aided by an unsettling score by Mark Korven. His actors are excellent, all required to deliver old English dialogue (much of it gathered from journals and court transcripts of the time for authenticity) and never miss a beat. That’s especially impressive when you realize that the cast is, numbers-wise, primarily child and young actors. They’re all incredible as they descend into madness, darkness and the icy grip of The Adversary himself.
While The Witch makes no bones about the existence of the supernatural it spends a lot of time putting us inside the minds of people with with hysteria. As calamities befall the family they start to accuse one another of dancing with the devil, and we get to understand their tortured wrestling with the intrusion of evil into what should be their God-fearing homestead.
The Witch is like someone adapted a 16th century woodcut of a witches’ sabbath; it is intoxicatingly detailed and deeply unsettling. It brings to the screen Satanic imagery that has fascinated occultists and weirdos for centuries, and it makes it all come completely alive. I have not seen a movie so real in a long time, and that realness is what makes all of the genre elements - all the genre elements that are so uniquely stirring - work so well.
It’s day one of the Sundance Film Festival, and I have many, many more movies to see, but it’s hard for me to imagine seeing another movie that gets me quite as excited, that is so special and works so spectacularly as art film and horror film. I love The Witch, and I want you to see it as soon as you can.