RObert Eggers’ new film, The Northman, arrives in Australian theaters this week. To prepare for this bloody tale of Viking vengeance, check out her unsettling horror debut The Witch: a folk horror film that doesn’t rely on gore to frighten audiences, but gradually creeps under your skin to slowly disorient you. . This is not a plunge from a rollercoaster but a slow ride down a dark country road.
Set in 1630, a family of Puritan settlers is driven from their New England village after heated religious squabbles in the colony. Theologically and physically isolated, patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) moves to the edge of a vast dense forest with his family: wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and baby Samuel. But nature was unforgiving and the family’s harvest failed. Suddenly, while under Thomasin’s care, baby Samuel disappears, stolen by a witch who lives in the forest.
This tangled forest is the demarcation line between the God-fearing Puritans and the ancient terrors that live within them. Magic was an accepted reality in the 17th century: William and his family lived according to their strict religious beliefs, and if God exists, so must the Devil. When events begin to unravel, we believe in them because they believe in them.
But it wasn’t just the witch’s actions that caused family ties to deteriorate. The tension was exacerbated by the failed harvest and, since Thomasin was in charge of Samuel when he was taken, it wasn’t long before a finger pointed at him. There’s also an interesting level of ambiguity to the story – is this all the result of simple bad luck, or does each family member have some responsibility for what happened to them?
Eggers’ meticulous attention to detail really helps The Witch work. Costumes are made from 17th century patterns; the houses were faithfully built in the thatched style of the time. Even dialogues are created from original diary entries and documents from the period. While the way the characters speak may take a little getting used to at first, the result is an immersive and authentic experience.
With the Pilgrims just arriving in North America, Eggers features British actors in the film. Ineson’s impressive height and gravel accent give William an important gravitas, and Dickie assures a spiral in the face of disaster after disaster. But most notably, this is Taylor-Joy’s first film, and Thomasin is the most complex character of all. As the eldest, he spends most of his time trying to lock up his boisterous siblings who are blamed for everything. He has few options for his future. In many ways, he was the scapegoat of the family.
Mark Korven’s twisted score uses abrasive strings, evil drones and wacky vocalizations to mess with your nerves; even seemingly innocuous shows are made evil in this unconventional tone. And Jarin Blaschke’s atmospheric cinematography contrasts the chaos of nature with the neat arrangement of the harsh farmland.
In the end, The Witch does an excellent job of appreciating the atmosphere, slowly cultivating a pervasive fear of fouler, cheaper thrills. It’s not a film to be forgotten once the credits roll, because The Witch would rather crawl inside your head and stay right there.