“I hold evil in my heart. My sins are not pardoned.”
Robert Eggers took the horror world by storm in 2015 with his debut film The Witch (or The VVitch as seen in the promotional posters, a typing choice that comes from a 1640’s pamphlet), having drawn inspiration from ominous past beliefs and the infamous Salem witch trials from the 17th century. Directed and written by Eggers, the American-Canadian production has gained the praise of Stephen King, critics and the Satanic Temple, thanks to A24’s clever marketing strategies.
This New England folktale takes place in the 1630’s, when a devout Christian family is excommunicated from its Puritan parish because of a grave sin committed by the father, William (Ralph Ineson). Their new home borders the impenetrably dark woods, and there the mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), gives birth to a boy, who soon vanishes right before his sister Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) eyes.
Grief and raging blame seep into the family, turning one against the other in the wake of their bad luck and inexplicable supernatural occurrences. While the crops wither away and the evil sounds of the forest drown out the pious prayers, the time comes to choose a scapegoat.
The film focuses on atmospheric photography, a historically accurate setting, and the fragile psychological dynamics that are developed between the pious members of a Puritan family some sixty years before the witch hysteria in Colonial America. Eggers based most of his dialogue on period sources, trial records, folktales and legends about witches and their “unholy” practices, dismissing standardized jump scares for a more conscientious analysis of disturbing concepts. These include: fear, doubt, dominance and blame.
The Witch is a coming-of-age chronicle that not only recounts the gradual loss of faith when cast into the unknown, but serves as an ambitious metaphor for numerous notions, ranging from a feminist manifesto against patriarchical societal norms that demonize women, to a grim fairy tale about manipulation and deceit. The film’s symbolism swings from man’s fight against nature, to liberation from the strict confines of religious obsession.
While The Witch starts off magnifying the nightmarish setting created by its dim lighting, the film’s second half seems propelled into darkness. The parents struggle with seeing their fears come to life as, one by one, their children succub to the infinite evil forces at play.
Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is, at one point, spat out of the forest in what can only be described as an orgasmic delirium. It’s interesting how Eggers incorporates Caporael ‘s refuted, yet still popular, claim that symptoms from ergot poisoning led to the Salem witch trials.
The acting is superb throughout the film, but it is Anya Taylor-Joy’s striking performance that steals the spotlight. Her coming of age directly affects all members of her family in times when women were only regarded as mothers and homemakers, diminishing any notion of their sexuality, power and independence as the workings of the Devil.
The true terrors lie in the rather unfortunate incidents that occur around Thomasin, who is allegorically tempted to taste butter at the end, an insurmountable sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church back in the 16th century, as explained in Elaine Khosrova‘s Butter: A Rich History (2016).
Judging The Witch from a purely cinematic angle, it’s easy to understand why the film has been on the lips of many horror fans for years. Its atmosphere and photography, combined with meticulously laid out scenography depicting the 17th era, is only accentuated by the use of both natural and candle light.
The camera takes us on a journey into the dark corners of the protagonists’ minds through repeated patterns of absolution and repentance, the projection of fear and calamitous lies. Linda Muir’s work as the costume designer and Mark Korven’s eerie and atypical score add to the overall experience of having been transported back in time to experience the anxiety felt by a 17th century woman.
The film revels in thematic symbolism and agonizing macabre. The family’s newly built home bears an uncanny resemblance to a witch’s hut in the woods. Also, the presented billy goat, hare, and raven are all different animals that have been connected to witchcraft and the occult over the centuries.
The Witch‘s insinuated cruelty and thickly bloody scenes allow the film to make a truly haunting imprint on the memory of its viewers. Regardless of the way one chooses to interpret this film, the feminine element is dominant; as oppressed as it can be ferocious.