(2016, Robert Eggers)
[Image courtesy of Universal Pictures]
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
When a family is banished from a plantation, they are left to fend for themselves in the woods. A baby is snatched away and a boy is seduced then possessed by the 'witch in the woods'. The film doesn't waste any time. It doesn't rely on the dread of the unseen as we are shown the Witch early on. I hesitate to call it a horror film. Instead, I would call it a really, really scary and paralysing period piece.
Fear is sown by slowly revealing what each character is capable of doing. Like in Arthur Miller's witch-hunt play THE CRUCIBLE, the threat is less the supernatural kind and more the people themselves. But by making the supernatural feel tangible, the setting uncomfortably genuine and the actors act and talk authentically (the dialogue is taken from historical documents) it feels like you are witnessing a found document you wished you hadn't seen. One can only hope that more horror movies spend less time trying to creep us out by reminding us that the story is 'based on real events' and instead make it actually seem palpably real. THE WITCH truly delivers in this regard.
It is similar to last year's THE ASSASSIN which was another meticulous and painstakingly made period movie. Both films instantly transport you to a specific time and place by leaving no stone unturned.
The costumes are made the way they made them back then. Upon closer inspection, the stitching is evidently handmade and the fabrics accurate to the time. In an interview with the director, he explains that he wanted the farmhouse where the family lived to be built with the same tools they used back in 17th century America. The saw used to cut the wood you cannot get at a hardware store so they spent time trying to find the authentic kind. This may seem excessive but the devil is in the details.
In its relentless commitment to authenticity, THE WITCH exposes just how artificial other horror movies are. Jump scares are pure manipulation and this film contains none. It doesn't need them. The dread piles on like heavy weights placed on the chest. I seriously had to catch my breath at some point.
The score, composed by Mark Korven, sounds like it's being played by a possessed orchestra with its bizarrely crooked tones layered with what sounds like a possessed church choir crying out not to God but to the darkness below. It doesn't jolt you or tell you when you need to cover your eyes but it complements the unearthly eerie atmosphere.
The framing and camerawork are intelligently designed to also make us feel uneasy. While some of the compositions are controlled and distant - think Dreyer and Haneke - it is punctuated with off-kilter framing that disturb that momentary sense of control. Sometimes the camera is placed way below the subject so it captures faces at an angle that makes them appear sinister. Some shots look strange and unexpected.
Just before the baby is taken, the scene is shot in close-up with the baby lying on the grass and his sister playing peek-a-boo with him. With multiple reverse reaction shots, we see his sister looking down. The look on her face turns to panic when she sees her brother is no longer there, the shot of her face looking down is held uncomfortably before cutting to a point of view shot. The boy's possession scene is shot from his feet upwards while he is lying down, looking up to his nose - a strange angle. And you wouldn't expect a scene of the family praying, with their hands lifted towards the heavens to be shot from below the shoulder looking up. The camera is looking from below like Satan himself. It is an unnerving visual technique.
It's hard to believe this is Egger's directorial debut having only worked as a production designer prior. His direction is assured and every decision made is a carefully considered one. It makes me really excited to see a new director intimately understand technique and utilise it to brilliant effect.