Sundance Review: The Witch is Folk Horror Heaven

ON

TheWitchFeatThrough its immaculate, meticulous colonial design and dense Old English, The Witch is still recognizable as familial horror. Siblings sit up late as life’s stresses force their parents to argue. A young woman’s rebellious streak heralds coming-of-age. Twins are disconcerting no matter what the year. And a father sternly asks if his children have made some unholy bond with that goat. 

Announcing itself as a folktale, The Witch is as resonant as one, imparting a simple caution. Only, instead of inciting fear of the witch in the wood, director Robert Eggers’ often stunning, flame-licked film turns its eye to the pure and puritanical. How their fire and brimstone and forcing of religion will only lead children toward her. As they should be led, and trapped and utterly inhabited in heavenly (and hellish) folk and fairy tale style, the film’s black magic brushing hard against the cold reality of 17th century life. True, there’s enough to endure and be fearful of in this day-to-day without a witch, but thank god there is one. It’s all the more frightening.

Eggers realizes this legendary creature in spectacular form, as the worst nightmare of a wood-carved illustration. The Witch declares that something centuries-old need not be dated, and does so early on with a grotesque, fireside act of murder and blood bath. Much of this smartly directed motion picture is harsh family drama, as a family of seven—quickly six—are banished from their plantation and go it alone on a farm next to the deep, dark forest. Established as too harshly religious by their peers, parents William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) live up to said judgment. They’re unrelenting in teaching their children of damnation and original sin, especially as Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and his increasingly ostracized sister Thomasin (a fantastic Anya Taylor-Joy) begin to question their god in earnest.

How perfect for evil to slip in. And so it does, in small, psychologically traumatizing acts. Crops worsen. Familial disagreements escalate to biblical superstitions. Thomasin’s (embodied by a fantastic Taylor-Joy) developing womanhood is as wrought and beleaguered by forest frights as her parents’ scrutiny.  The witch and her familiars circle.

William and Katherine’s home life is observed in patient, grey atmosphere, their duress and struggle laid bare. Not the least of which includes a pair of twins, sickly sweet and inherently sinister in their unison singing, black goat adoration and cries of witchery. Meanwhile the witch herself, in a house surrounded by mushroom, creeping in wrinkly Grimm-skin and long untamed hair, is revealed in mysterious satanic glory, her face obscured until one tremendous second.

Much of The Witch’s most ghastly images are the result of such great anticipation. Eggers laces the film with foreboding, paranoid tension. He never asks you to question the witch’s physical reality, but often becomes so entangled in this family’s already mucky, less fantastical—though superstitious—existence that her assaults become simultaneously so much worse and something of a reprieve. Though unnerving, horror fans might oddly find a comfort in her folkloric ways. They carry both the stern warning and affectionate chill of a campfire tale, the latter exhilarating in The Witch’s transcendent final moments.

Box Office

Weekend: Aug. 22, 2019, Aug. 25, 2019

New Releases