Arguably the three greatest horror films ever are THE EXORCIST, THE SHINING, and THE THING. What these three movies have in common, besides “The” being the first word of their title, is a masterful command of mood and tone. When you are in the middle of watching these films, you feel as though nothing has ever existed outside that experience. The tension they generate fills the entire room and sucks out all of the air. You have the sense that the smallest scare could possibly shake our reality from it’s tracks. These are our horror classics. They don’t have the juvenile thrills of a slasher film or give you the creepy-crawly goosebumps of a good ghost movie. They don’t need to. They just show normal people changing into the worst possible versions of themselves. That is always the true fear. That we will one day simply not exist and in our place a malicious force will wreck havoc on whatever we left behind.
I hope you like those kinds of movies, because there is a new horror classic to add to that list. That movie is THE WITCH.
Set in 1630’s New England, THE WITCH shows us a family exiled from their puritan community and attempting to forge a new life for themselves on the fringes of the nearby woods. Everything begins to fall apart for them when their newborn baby goes missing by the edge of the woods after a game of peekaboo goes awry.
This is the feature film directorial debut for writer/director Robert Eggers and it is as close to a perfect film as you can possibly get. Despite having a limited budget and a modest setting (99% of the film takes place on small farm and the nearby woods), THE WITCH has an unparalleled focus on authenticity that borders on supernatural. Every aspect of this film from the set, the costumes, the music, and the dialogue just keeps building on that authenticity. Mere moments into the 90-minute running time it stopped being a movie. The screen in front of me was a portal to a time long past where the devil danced with us humans.
And those humans are all portrayed by incredible actors. Ralph Ineson (GAME OF THRONES, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, and HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS) and Kate Dickie (FILTH, GAME OF THRONES, and PROMETHEUS) are terrific as the father and mother of this family and their performances go a long way towards helping to build the verisimilitude of the picture. It is the younger performers, however, that steal this movie from the adult performers. Ana Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin is the defacto lead of this movie and she absolutely slays the emotional, physical, and spiritual journey that Thomasin goes on in the film. There is also a sequence about midway through the film that should get everyone to take notice of young Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays Thomasin’s inquisitive and protective brother, Caleb. I don’t want to say anything about it other than that it left me utterly breathless and emotionally wrecked. I can’t wait to see what all of these gifted performers do next.
When you see 1630’s New England recreated with such specificity and the story within that time period told with such integrity, it’s not hard to find yourself utterly transported to that time. It’s a time where everything around you was the unknown and you were completely isolated. Everything beyond your sight line was a potential terror and your religion only bolstered the scope and fantastical nature of those fears. THE WITCH feels like the nightmare I would have had if I’d lived during that era. It is the worst possible outcome for that family on the fringes of that woodland.
I could go on and on about this film, but it would be a disservice to the film itself. It isn’t something that should be researched beforehand. THE WITCH is the kind of movie you go in cold, sit down, and let this demonic masterpiece have it’s way with you. The movie turned me into an amateur contortionist in my theater seat. The gentleman introducing the movie last night said that we should find a quiet corner within ourselves and suffer through this film from that vantage point. Truer words have never been spoken. Eggers joins the list of masters with this film. It is now Carpenter, Freidkin, Kubrick, and Eggers. These four gentlemen have all created works that transcend the nature of the genre. I’m not knocking on slasher flicks or a good, old fashioned jump scare. They are a lot of fun! Fun is not the intention of these films. Their main goal is to show the audience genuine terror and then release them from it. They are films that deliver the ultimate catharsis.
I implore you to get your satanic catharsis as soon as humanly possible when THE WITCH opens on February 19th.