The Witch Review

The Witch is atypical modern horror. It emphasizes atmosphere over gore and unease over cheap scare tactics. It's more for arthouse enthusiasts, those weaned on Bergman and Kubrick and Haneke, than bloodthirsty horror fans. Perhaps, though, it could be a gateway for some - a way of getting into unsettling psychological cinema less concerned with explicit violence and instead focused on a different path of disorientation.

The premise deserves only modest explanation, as it's relatively threadbare and benefits from the viewer's self-discovery. At the center of the film is Tomasina (played, in a breakout performance, by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy), the oldest child of a devout Christian family in 1630 New England. Her younger siblings include a brother, twins, and an infant still being nursed by their mother Katherine. Their father William, a farmer, is struggling to keep his family sufficiently fed amid a troubling crop season. What quietly unfolds is the family's fear - superstitious or otherwise - of a witch or similarly sinister creature lurking in the dense forest. An unusual tragedy strikes early on, bringing this belief of a dangerous entity to the fore.

There's terror here in brief, spontaneous bursts. Eggers, opting for short moments of visions that stick with the viewer, makes his best thrills count. The woman in the red cape with the powerful hands is especially difficult to shake. Quick glimpses into the film's soul prove all the more effective when they interrupt the too-quiet, meticulously crafted exterior. Everything here is painfully authentic - from the often bordering on unintelligible dialogue to the devout production design. Rarely have we seen a period horror film, particularly one with such a modest budget, so keen on establishing its distinct surroundings. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Combining a spare, ominous score and cinematography that uses the natural light of overcast skies, the setting puts viewers firmly in the mood to be unnerved. Eggers makes the most of his scenes of grey terror. His world is one in which the shine of the sun is perpetually absent. To a real extent, we fear for Tomasina and her siblings as much for the bleakness of her surroundings as the promise of some threatening evil which may or may not materialize. There's a real presumption of some heavy-level darkness associated with Tomasina's family, even if it's difficult to pinpoint exactly who or what is behind it all. The mysterious presence of Black Philip the goat consistently lingers.

The associated move into womanhood she's undergoing surely plays a role in any and all thematic discussion of The Witch. From a deeper, more critical undertaking of the film it seems to embrace a reading in the direction of Tomasina's adult awakening having catastrophic effects on her family. This seems due to their struggle to comprehend or come to terms with it as much as anything else, and it furthers that distinctively European art film attachment one could make. Indeed, if The Witch had subtitles its cachet might increase almost automatically.

Nonetheless as it stands, the film - officially entitled The VVitch and introduced onscreen as "a New England folk tale" - looks to hold as one of the year's best and certainly one of its most auspicious debut features. What director Eggers has done is pretty remarkable. The unfamiliar cast notwithstanding, there's no indication of budgetary compromise or other corners being cut. This is something that seeps into your head and stubbornly refuses to budge. It deserves a patient audience ready to absorb its particular brand of horror.

The Disc

The Witch hits Region A Blu-ray via Lionsgate. (It'll be well into the summer it seems before the film comes out in the UK on disc.) The region-locked BD release comes with a slipcover and a Digital HD code.

Director Robert Eggers opted for the now-uncommon 1.66:1 aspect ratio and that's respected here. The digital image is reproduced without any obvious flaws. Visual artistic choices limit the wow factor, with natural lighting or dark, candlelit interiors doing little to put any sort of glossy sheen to the appearance. Think Goya. It's nonetheless an impressive aesthetic that has been carried over here without issue.

Audio arrives in an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that is technically fine but not without some minor irritants. Dialogue can be a pain to understand. Actors' accents and speech patterns (particularly the harshness of Ralph Unison's) often muddy the ostensible clarity of the audio. The period phrasing employed further complicates what's being said, making the optional English (for the hearing impaired) subtitles even more vital. A Spanish language set of subtitles is here as well. There are only subtle music and effects, most all of which mesh effectively to better engage the listener.

A decent set of special features is highlighted by an expectedly detailed audio commentary from director Eggers. There's also a short featurette entitled The Witch: A Primal Folklore (8:28) that has interviews with the cast and crew.

A really nice addition here is the Salem Panel Q&A (27:59) which was done in Salem, Massachusetts after a screening and features both the film's director and lead actress as well as a couple of local historians. It's interesting to get that particular perspective on the movie.

A Design Gallery shows about 16 production sketches and photos of things such as costumes and locations.

Trailers for other films (Green Room, The Adderall Diaries, Mojave, Tusk and Ex Machina) are also playable from the main menu.

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A brilliant debut feature from Robert Eggers and a very uncommon horror film with deeply artistic leanings. The Witch defies expectation at most every turn, making for a quite troubling viewing experience.


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