Scaring someone is tricky business. You can startle someone with jump scares and you can gross someone out with torture porn and gore but to really scare someone takes an incredible level of skill. Further, it would seem an almost insurmountable task to scare someone in your very first film. But with the release of The Witch Robert Eggers, a first time director, does just that.
The Witch follows a devoutly religious family of 7 who have been ousted from their pilgrim community and banished into the wilderness. Once on their own, they begin life anew and if harsh conditions, scarce livestock and blighted crops weren’t bad enough, a dark force overtakes the family by first kidnapping their newborn and then slowly picking them apart.
When I say slowly, I mean it. The Witch is a slow burn in the best sense of the word. It takes its time slowly cranking up the tension and hardship of an already down on its luck brood and makes you feel every strike against them in the most visceral ways possible. The staggered pace is kept moving from some really exceptional performances by the entire cast, but the lion’s share falls onto daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Father William (Ralph Ineson). The scenes they share together are among the best but individual they are powerhouses.
Aside from a stellar cast, the film also benefits from a near perfect balance of dread and revulsion. Like The Shining or The Blair Witch Project before it, The Witch builds its dread through isolation. We know early on that there is no going back for these people. They must face the unknown, both from nature and the supernatural, by themselves. This intense dread is broken up through gruesome flashes of the titular character and all of its misdeeds against the family. There are images in this film that will likely haunt me for a very long time. Between the two types of horror, there is rarely a time to catch your breath as you creep towards the finale.
Eggers also employs the careful eye of Jarin Blaschke (whom he previously worked with on a short adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart) to bring the real world setting of the film to life. Every shot is gorgeous and foreboding. Equal measures haunting and beautiful when paired with perfect set and light design. Even at its most gruesome, its difficult to look away from the magnificent cinematography.
We are just near the end of February and already The Witch is the horror film to beat in 2016. This real world fairy tale is the stuff of the brothers Grimm with a modern sense of exactly it takes to get under your skin and trust me, it will.
5 out of 5 barrels