Thursday, 13 October 2016

HALLOWEEN HORROR: The Witch (2016) review


It takes a great director to make you question the very truth of a situation he has allowed you to see. A family, excommunicated from a Puritan plantation for interpreting the Old Testament wrong, we witness young baby Sam snatched right under eldest sister Thomasin's nose, and we are shown the old, ugly hag of witch sacrifice the un-baptised baby to make flying ointment. We see this happen. Yet, director Robert Eggers story is so paranoid, even we start to doubt what we've seen, wondering how, what seems like a shared delusion, will work out.

Set in 1630 New England, we are immediately consumed by the era. The old English language seems bafflingly formal. Prayers before bed beg for forgiveness. The forest next to a failing smallholding reaches menacingly high and is equally foreboding. Also written by Eggers, The Witch is an attempt to "exorcise" his fear of witches. While some of the features of this story may seem like tried and tested supernatural tropes, Eggers manages to make them new and justified.


Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) may not be the reason Sam is missing, but her attempt to scare off her younger sister, to stop her from being annoying and distracting, leads the seeds to be planted that she is in fact the witch that terrorises them. A series of bad luck haunt the family - failed crops, missing heirlooms, murdered pet - and increasingly, in their isolation, they turn to blame each other. Although the father (Ralph Ineson) was the reason they originally got banished from the plantation, he continues to doom the family. He's unable to hunt, and willing lets Thomasin take the blame for the missing heirloom. Their own sin also threatens them, as the father is proud and vain, and the son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) holds incestuous desires towards Thomasin.

Unlike many mainstream horror movies, with their predictable jump-scares and other cheap tactics, The Witch is more psychological. The horror is less in its supernatural elements and more in the destruction of the family unit, with its suspicions and blaming. Thomasin, a teenager on the cusp of becoming a woman, is the catalyst for much of this blame, and her mother (Kate Dickie) seems very unsentimental towards her, and at one point discusses her being sold to another family. There are shocking scenes, scenes I won't spoil for you here, but The Witch is as much a meditation on the hysteria that vague ideas and isolation can generate, as much as it is about heresy and magic.



Much like The Shining and Rosemary's Baby, The Witch will crawl under your skin and take root there. The ending is satisfying, although it may seem nihilistic compared to more mainstream horror (depending on how you view Thomasin's situation), and even though you could suspect what was going to happen, it was as wonderfully unnerving as it was restrained.

Eggers is certainly a director to keep an eye on. If his dedication to research and execution of his craft stays at the level of The Witch, then his remake of the 1922 horror classic Nosferatu will be immense. If you have the patience for this slow burner, you will be richly rewarded.

8/10

Layla


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