Bret Easton Ellis tweeted recently that “Indie Arthouse Horror is becoming my least favourite new genre”, his examples being “It Follows”, “Goodnight Mommy”, “The Babadook” and “The Witch”. Twitter being Twitter, Ellis doesn’t elaborate, but for most of us, the trend for scary movies that prioritise originality and atmosphere over computer-generated monsters has been something to celebrate. After all, it’s not as if we’re over-run with glum supernatural chillers set in New England in the early 1600s. Whatever you think of “The Witch”, the latest film to have earned Ellis’s disapproval, it’s not the kind of thing you see at the multiplex every day.
What is especially distinctive about “The Witch” is the painstaking way in which its debut writer-director, Robert Eggers, recreates its colonial setting. There is no attempt to make the characters sympathetic to a modern audience, no 21st-century “voice of reason” to challenge their 17th-century superstitions. Somewhere between a particularly bleak period drama and the introductory video in a Massachussetts heritage centre, “The Witch” is shot in muddy browns and greys, and, according to an onscreen caption, much of the characters’ archaic dialogue has been taken directly from 17th-century diaries, letters and court documents concerning witchcraft. Not even Marvel’s “Thor” blockbusters have so many thees and thous. But while the film’s meticulous authenticity lends it an unsettling strangeness, it also raises worrying questions about what exactly Eggers is getting at.
Subtitled “A New-England Folktale”, “The Witch” focuses on an English family that made the crossing to America just a few years earlier, and has already fallen out with its fellow Puritans. The head of the family is William (Ralph Ineson), a tall, long-haired and bearded dead ringer for Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson in his 1970s heyday. Having argued with some village elders about the Gospels, William and his wife Kate (Kate Dickie) – no relation to “Hello!” magazine’s favourite royals – are exiled into the wilderness, their belongings piled onto a cart. They choose to build a homestead at the edge of a remote wood, but the eerie choral shrieking on the soundtrack suggests that this is, like so many horror-movie relocations, a very bad idea. Next, the couple’s teenage daughter, Thomasin (beautiful star-to-be Anya Taylor-Joy), is seen playing peekaboo near the house with her baby brother, Samuel. She covers her eyes for a few seconds, and when she uncovers them, Samuel has vanished. The family is mystified, but Eggers shows us a sinister cloaked figure scuttling away into the woods.
Back at the farm, it isn’t just Samuel’s disappearance that is upsetting William and Kate. With their corn dying and their food supplies dwindling, they begin to ask whether God is punishing them, or whether devilish forces are at work. Maybe the root of their troubles is that Thomasin’s brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) keeps peeking at her newly developing curves. Maybe it has something to do with the disobedient young twins, Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger), and the games they play with a goat named Black Philip. Or maybe, as commanding as he appears, William just doesn’t have the skills to cut it as a frontiersman.
The snag is that while William and Kate are wrestling with these questions, the viewer knows the answer. Right from that early scene of Samuel’s abduction, Eggers makes it clear that there really is someone – or something – with diabolical powers in the woods, so the squabbles over who has been sinful or dishonest seem irritatingly moot. In its last 15 minutes, “The Witch” has as many gruesome shocks and nightmarish images as any horror film, but the lack of ambiguity saps it of its intrigue and resonance in the meantime.
A bigger problem with Eggers’ the-witch-is-real approach is its conceit that 17th-century New England was plagued by Satanic wickedness. And that conceit implies that the Salem witch trials, which took place a few decades later, were a justifiable response to black magic. Considering how many innocent people were executed in Salem in 1692 and 1693, it’s an implication which is in poor taste, to say the least.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be offended by a film which exploits a three-centuries-old religious hysteria. But with its austere mood and scrupulous historical accuracy, “The Witch” insists that we take it more seriously than a typical slice of horror hokum. Besides, we’re hardly short of religious hysteria today. Do we really want a film to tell us that Satan is alive and well and ready to steal our souls?