“The Witch” (2016) – Growing up in a small town in Upstate NY, seasonal pictures of rural, deciduous nature surrounded me with – seemingly – every step I took. This was a time when my mother said on a Saturday morning, “Go out and play, and we’re having dinner at six,” and therefore, like it or not, the outdoors became my trusty companion. With all the years of building forts, playacting army raids and simply trudging around, I do not remember ever feeling unsafe in the woods. Unfortunately in “The Witch”, the woods offers a very different feeling for a family of seven, led by parents William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) in 1630 New England.
Due to a religious disagreement, the elders of a gated community requested that this family leave the village, and William and Katherine decide to stake their claim and build a small corn farm accompanied with a stable of animals. With five children (including one infant) and little experience in farming, thriving in this environment is a delicate and completely vulnerable exercise, while the film presents foreboding and uneasy tones right from the start.
First time writer/director Robert Eggers perfectly casted Ineson and Dickie as William and Katherine who offer all the warmth and comfort of a North Dakota blizzard. While they are not abusive, they rule the household with stern instruction wrapped in black and white pious beliefs, and the kids – a roughly 16-year-old girl Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy), her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), a pair of even younger twins, and an infant – have no choice but to follow suit.
Under a constant backdrop of grey skies and leafless trees, this family does not need any additional, outside elements of bad luck, but ill misfortune arrives in the form of black magic from a witch in the adjacent forest. Eggers’ choice of locales is gravely important, because the isolation delivers oceans of silence during quiet ordinary tasks of fetching water, shucking corn or feeding the animals, while the audience knows that evil can walk/glide/scamper into view within any moment.
Eggers sometimes reveals the “face” of evil, but he builds extreme amount of tension by – many times – deliberately pointing his camera away from the actual horrors. We become frightened by what we do not see while fretting about what might appear on-screen or is actually occurring off-screen. Meanwhile, the previously mentioned foreboding and uneasy tones are soon joined by sinister forces as well and blend into a sickening concoction of a cinematic intake for the moviegoers’ senses.
“The Witch” does not rely on jump scares or gore, but instead delves into morbid terrors through mood, 17th Century thought processes, expert camera work, and use of setting. Although isolated cabins in the woods have become a modern tool of horror – such as in “Friday the 13th” and “The Evil Dead” – the antagonist in this film does not rampage its prey. Rather, it sits like a sniper and waits for its moment(s) to strike, and the results left me striking out any future plans of taking a casual walk in the woods.