For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.
Title: The VVitch: A New England Folktale
Release Date: January 27, 2015
Director: Robert Eggers
Production Company: Parts and Labor | RT Features | Rooks Nest Entertainment | Maiden Voyage Pictures | Mott Street Pictures | Code Red Productions | Scythia Films | Pulse Films | Special Projects
New England is a spooky place, and to the Puritans of 1630 it was an untamed world of nightmares. Although director Robert Eggers had to go to a remote part of Ontario to find an undeveloped place to film, the movie captures the dark and mysterious New England forest. This also may be the most authentic depiction of Puritan settlers on film drawing on original documents for the dialogue and research into religious and folklore beliefs. The Witch is also beautiful to look at, with most scenes filmed by natural light or candlelight, adding to the sense of eeriness.
The movie begins with a man, William (Ralph Ineson), getting exiled from a Puritan community. He leads his family into the wilderness, building a small farmstead in a clearing by a foreboding forest. His wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) feels the loss of her home in England, and grows increasingly overcome with grief as her children go missing. The eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the main protagonist of the film, a teenager learning to take on adult responsibilities. The next in line, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is an adolescent boy feeling the need to prove himself as a provider for his family. Then there are the twin children Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) who are kids who basically do what kids do: play. But that behavior is not acceptable in a family of religious zealots maintaining a farm in the wilderness, and Thomasin gets blamed for their “misbehavior” leading her to torment them by saying she’s a witch (big mistake!).
The family also has a newborn baby, Samuel (Axtun Henry Dube and Athan Conrad Dube), and while Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with him he is snatched away. The movie makes it clear early on that there’s an actual witch living in the wood. But a lot of suspense in this film is drawn from the sense that what we’re seeing is not reality. Was the baby really just taken by a wolf? Is a family member possessed or merely delirious from an illness? Do the animals act up because they’re agents of Satan or because they’re hungry and sick? Is the family torn apart because of the Devil or because their confined lives and religious zealotry make them susceptible to fear and mistrust? Are there really demons or are they hallucinating due to ergot from their spoiled crops.
The film wisely never answers these questions leaving everything unsettled and lingering. This is not your typical horror film. Jump scares are few and while the climax of the film is disturbingly violent, the camera does not linger on gore or its hidden in shadows. The acting is good, particularly Taylor-Joy, whose unnaturally oversize eyes express a lot, and Ineson, who balances his outward devotion to God with the inward knowledge that he is failing to provide for his family. Watch this one on a dark, rainy and windy night in New England for the extra effect.