TIFF Review: 'The Witch'

The Witch
(USA/Canada, 92 min.)
Written and directed by Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF.

“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” asks Satan during one of the many unsettling moments of The Witch. This flat-out terrifying horror film ranks even higher than The Babadook on the scare scale: The Witch is one of the best horror films in years. Don’t expect gore (although there’s plenty of blood) and don’t expect pop-up scares and surprises. Those are boring; they’ve been done. The Witch takes horror back to its roots with a spine-tingling folktale that brings moments of genuine terror through the meticulous manipulation of place, space, atmosphere, tone, and character. Some things are best done the old way, and Robert Eggers’ The Witch is old-school horror at its finest.

The Witch, which was shot just a few hours outside Ottawa in Mattawa, perfectly re-creates 1630s New England on the corners of the Ottawa River. The film brings a family under the spell of witchcraft in the years before the Salem Witch Trials. The family leaves its hometown when the elders of the church banish them for uncertain reasons. Cast as pariahs and isolated in a barren field against the backdrop of a gothic and spindly forest, the future looks ominous for the family.

Tragedy strikes when the family’s eldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) sees the family baby snatched from under her eyes during a frightening game of peekaboo. A witch snatches the baby and carries it off into the forest for a ritual sacrifice. She grinds the little babe into mush and does a full body wash in blood and pulpy baby bits. Naturally, Thomasin takes the blame.

The family is its own foreshadowing of the Salem Witch Trials as Thomasin’s mother (Kate Dickie) eyes her suspiciously in the haze of her grief. Her father (the gravelly-voiced Ralph Ineson) looks upon her with a mix of scepticism, compassion, and doubt: he’s not so much worried that Thomasin lost the baby intentionally, but he finds her guilty of becoming a woman. The family’s evil twins, however, cry “Witch!” in a wicked game of make-believe that sends the family into a frenzy, doubly so when the eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is seduced by wickedness shortly thereafter. The performances are perfectly restrained and mannered to fit the attitudes of yore as the formality of The Witch brews a simmering allegory that deconstructs the institutions of faith and the family as fear corrupts everything on the farm.

Whether The Witch casts its spell through parable or peril, the film utterly mesmerizes as it takes the lore of the Witch Trial days and re-rewrites them with a young woman’s subjugation by her own family. Thomasin has no rights or voice in her own home, she’s a default object of blame, and the ugly spell of patriarchal misogyny is a darker force than the witch who lurks in the corners of the woods. Simply put, Thomasin is not to be trust since, well, she’s the lone young woman at the farm and prime for plucking from corruptible forces.

Eggers, a former production designer, expertly crafts the world of The Witch down to the last detail. The tones and attitudes of the characters are truly unnerving as they speak properly and vacantly using dialogue that Eggers designed through meticulous research. Every aspect of The Witch is tailored to the letter of the period with the dialogue evoking terror through its ambiguity and formality—one feels like one is on trial alongside Thomasin—and with the crafts of the costumes and production design pitch-perfect recreations of New England arcana. The costumes are especially precise with the pilgrims of the farm evoking a quaintness that makes them ripe for the plucking for every witch—and every implication of witchcraft—and a little daft as they place their face in God to save them from the witch and Satan. The scares come from the things one doesn’t see and in the ambiguity and uncertainty that enshroud the tale.

Eggers’ direction is at its best with The Witch’s play on animals that turns every cuddly creature into something wicked. Take a fluffy little bunny, say, that hops around the forest as Thomasin and Caleb scour the forest for the witch and the missing baby. This bunny subtly, imperceptibly becomes an unexpected incarnation of evil as it appears around the woods and farm. A simple shot of its wiggly nose and beady eye turns it into the monster.

However, The Witch finds a new breed of evil in the family’s goat, Black Philip. Replete with horns and eyes more evil than the bunny’s are, Black Philip is Satan incarnate. When he hops around the farm like the demonic bunny, The Witch sends a breathtaking chill as Black Philip foreshadows the family’s doom. The natural elements are terrifying in The Witch, and Eggers hand at realism creates a spine-tingling tale that feels ripped from everyday life. This truly scary film is a masterwork of horror: Gothic terror has never been more delicious.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)
The Witch opens in theatres in 2016 from Elevation Pictures and A24.

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