What do 1630, a silver cup, Christian fervor and a goat named Black Phillip have in common? The Witch. Unholy goodness through and through, Robert Egger‘s feature film debut is a horror masquerading as a costume drama that’s as beady, black and misshapen as the center of a goat’s eye. Beneath the dirt-stained, leather-bound waistcoats, the perfumed, toity language of the New World, the white bonnets and constrictive girdles, The Witch has a vicious, illict and suspicious center and though admittedly scaled back on “scares” is deeply atmospheric, deeply disturbing and deeply great.
Puritanical colonial horror is probably not a subgenre you’re familiar with, because it didn’t exist until yesterday. The first on the scene is often the best and in the case of The Witch, it’ll be a hard one to top for a good while (though we fully expect it to be stylistically plagiarized somewhere down the line.) With as much in common with The Exorcist as The Crucible, The Witch declares itself a “New England fable” as the curtain rises. 90 minutes later as it cuts to black, it prods you with the knowledge that all depictions were based on recorded accounts from colonists during the inception of “America” as a continent.
Anyone familiar with the time period and able to contextualize know it’s not a pleasant fable. And while you might think you have a good idea of what to expect from the film, let me assure you that you don’t. Eggers sharply avoids the routes we’ve been trained to expect, instead optioning for a wholly original familial horror story as frilly and thought out as 1630s garb. While Robert Redford takes a walk in the woods and Meryl Streep goes into the woods, Eggers is the only one to capture the majestic foreboding of the forest.
There’s something deeply unsettling about the infinite expanse of heavily forested nothingness, a great unknown that spurred colonists’ imaginations towards the darkest, nastiest corners, and Eggers – with the help of director of photography Jarin Blaschke – is able to blow that unease into a blimp; omnipresent and hovering over all. Combine Craig Lathrtop‘s dark, authentic production design with Mark Korven‘s underworldly eerie score – a sonicscape that summons the wet sounds of organs torn from bodies and the percussive snapping of bones – and The Witch bakes up a perfect storm of atmosphere and tone, greatly aided by its stellar cast.
One of many imposing elements of The Witch is just how impressive this predominantly youth cast is. Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson rouse as the patriarch and matriarch, displaying great depth and a masterful handling of their challenging lexicon but it’s the under-18 crowd who really impress. Both Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw have their moments of thespian glory in the sun and own them completely. Even young Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger handle the colonial tongue with grace and skill well beyond their years.
When the family snaps under the pressure of internal and external presses, it’s anyone’s game and you’ll want to behold the result. The fact that The Witch is up for consideration in the Dramatic Competition of Sundance should tell you how transcendent the product is. After all, how often does a horror get to play the awards game? Egger’s does, first and foremost because his film is an authoritative debut, declaring his arrival with a gory stomp that will leave a deep and long-standing footprint.