Fantastic Fest Review: THE WITCH

Where is your God now?

I feel like the Devil's fallen on hard times over the past few decades. He's been cast aside in favor of more specific villains (ones designed to speak to the parade of real-world horrors we face on a daily basis), relegated to the same tired corner of the horror genre populated by vampires and zombies. It's kind of a bummer! This is our original Big Bad, yet somewhere in between society's slow-but-steady falling-out with religion and the genre's incessant attempts to launch new (and lucrative!) slasher franchises, he simply doesn't have the same cache that he used to. I mean, really: when's the last time you were legit terrified of Satan?

The good news is, the Devil appears to be making a comeback! According to my calculations, a full 33% of the films I've caught at Fantastic Fest this year have dealt with the Dark Lord in one way or another (to be sure, some have been more successful than others [nice try, February] but whatever: I'm just happy to see our greatest villain operating outside of yet another shitty Exorcist wannabe). And of this group, the absolute best of the bunch has been Robert Eggers' The Witch

Where do I even begin?

Eggers - in his feature debut, and with the help of an astoundingly talented cast and crew - has created an instant classic, a skin-crawling descent into madness that we will be obsessing over for years to come. It is, for my money, the new gold standard for indie horror, and one of the best things you could possibly see at Fantastic Fest this year (the other best-in-show title, Green Room, also came from A24; three cheers for these folks).

Here's the setup: in 1630's New England, after being forcibly ejected from the Puritan settlement they call home, an extremely pious family of six decides to light out for the territories and make it on their own. They set up shop in a clearing at the edge of a forest, planting a corn field and erecting a modest home where they'll be free to praise God as hard as they like. Before long, however, things begin to unravel: the corn won't grow. The forest contains precious few animals to hunt. The family's newborn goes missing, sending mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) down into an ugly spiral of loathing and paranoia. The twins, Mercy and Jonas, are behaving very strangely, and middle-son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is questioning the particulars of his faith in a way that makes his father, William (Ralph Ineson), very uncomfortable. And oh yeah: Mercy claims to have seen a Witch in the forest. So there's that.

And that's about all you need to know about The Witch in terms of plot. Anything else would begin verging on spoiler territory, and this film deserves to be experienced in as pure a manner as possible. Rest assured our interpid family will experience temptation, despair, and a good deal of madness before the credits roll, and that your stomach will be in knots as you watch it all go down.

Much has been made about Eggers' decision to script the film using bits of verbiage taken directly from period-appropriate historical documents, journals and legal records and the like. It's a bold decision, one that some audiences may have trouble wrapping their heads around. The dialogue is dense and chewy, performed naturalistically and often through moments of pure hysteria (read: shrieking). It's also a decision that pays off in spades. Like the gorgeously-detailed costumes, The Witch's dialogue puts us squarely in a specific time and place, making everything feel disconcertingly real. 

It's elevated by a genuinely stunning series of performances from the cast. As frontier parents who grow increasingly, dangerously desperate as their family implodes around them, Ineson and Dickie are pitch-perfect, and deserve major credit for what they bring to the table. But the real stars of The Witch are the children: Anya Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin, the family's oldest child, and she turns in a star-making performance, one made all the more impressive by the deliriously intricate chunks of dialogue she's been tasked with delivering. She's matched by Scrimshaw, who pulls off (I shit you not) one of the most astounding pieces of acting I have ever seen from a child performer; Scrimshaw's big moment left the audience I saw the film with slack-jawed with amazement. These are all-timer performances, easily awards-caliber and hopefully career-making.

The twins, Mercy and Jonas, are also effective, which is to say that they're a little terrifying. Costume designer Linda Muir (whose work also deserves awards recognition) dresses them in period-appropriate outfits that have the bizarre effect of making them look like freakishly tiny adults. When they get to scampering around the family farm while singing the praises of Black Phillip, the effect is flat-out disturbing. These two are also called upon to pull off some tricky material in front of the camera, and - to their credit - they nail it.

But then, everyone involved here nails it, from the top down. Mark Korven's score is unsettling and memorable (it will remind you of The Shining on more than one occasion). Mary Kirkland's set design is flawless. Jarin Blaschke's cinematography turns virtually every frame of the film into a beautifully bleak oil painting. The cast is uniformly excellent. And at the very top you've got Robert Eggers, who seems to have come out of nowhere (not exactly true: he's got a background in production design, costuming, and art direction) to deliver not only one of the most ferociously confident first features I've ever seen, but one of the horror genre's best entries in years.

You see a film like The Witch, and you marvel at the incredible amount of talent that came together in order to pull it off. I cannot wait for all of you to see this movie.