It’s a difficult task in today’s cinema to create a truly unique horror film, but that’s just what writer-director Robert Eggers accomplished with the 2015 thriller The Witch: A New England Folktale. This eerie tale concerns a Puritan family who is banished from their colony because of their too strict religious beliefs. The family sets up a farm, which is located not far from a wooded area. William, the father, works hard to make their crops bear fruit, but they are failing. Strange things begin to occur. The family’s youngest child disappears while being watched by the oldest daughter, Thomasin. Was it a wolf that spirited the infant away, or something more sinister? The mother, Katherine, is inconsolable at the loss of her infant child, believing supernatural forces may be responsible. Her sanity begins to fray at the edges, and she focuses her ire (and the blame) on Thomasin, who claims she's innocent.
Caleb, the oldest son, goes hunting with his father, and confides that he is struggling with his faith. Young twins Mercy & Jonas claim the family’s goat, which they call Black Philip, speaks to them, and they sing songs to him. Caleb disappears one night, only to return feverish & in a coma, after a terrifying ordeal. Paranoia begins to set in, and everyone starts to distrust one another. A witch appears to be the cause of all their woes, but is this evil being among them? Katherine believes it to be Thomasin, since most of the strange events seem to center upon her. Things go from bad to worse, and ultimately the true face of the evil that haunts the family is revealed. I don’t want to spoil the film, so I won’t say more about the plot. This is a story where the terror builds at a slow burn, and reaches a crescendo by the film’s climax.
The family’s religious beliefs are very real to them, and this threat tears those beliefs, and their bonds, asunder. The Witch: A New England Folktale is as much a story about the unraveling of the family unit & a challenge to its core values, as it is a supernatural thriller. Anya Taylor-Joy gives an assured & layered performance as Thomasin, whose gentleness, curiosity & humor seems at odds with the more stern, restrictive nature of her parents. The excellent cast also includes Ralph (Game of Thrones) Ineson who is solid & effective as William, Kate Dickie, who delicately portrays Katherine’s spiraling descent into madness, and Harvey Scrimshaw as the loyal Caleb, who powerfully conveys the boy’s questions & conflicted emotions regarding the severity of their spiritual beliefs, and the nature of sin.
Writer-director Eggers and his crew have done an excellent job with this carefully crafted, exquisitely produced film. The accurate period details, costumes and sets really make you feel as if you’re living with this family in the 17th century. The kind of terror this family faces wasn’t just the stuff of bedtime stories; the demons of their religion & folklore were very real to them. The Witch: A New England Folktale is a creepy, unsettling film that does not go for “jump scares” or cheap shocks, but uses atmosphere, sound effects & lighting to convey a sense of unease & dread. If you like intelligent, well-crafted tales of spine-chilling terror, The Witch: A New England Folktale is truly one of the best recent films in the genre. The movie is now available for streaming & on Blu-ray and DVD. The disc versions include some fascinating interviews and a Q&A with the filmmakers. Here’s a link to the trailer for the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQXmlf3Sefg.