The Witch (2015)

59 The Witch

The two most primal human emotions are love and fear which explains why ‘romance’ and ‘horror’ are two of the oldest genres in literature, theatre and film. The horror film The Witch (2015) belongs to an ancient line of storytelling about the unseen things that drive irrational fear. It’s a film with echoes of Arthur Miller’s iconic 1953 play and 1996 film The Crucible about the mass hysteria generated by religious zealotry in the 17th century Puritan colonies of America. The bigger history links to tens of thousands of invariably female ‘witches’ who were publicly executed from the 15th to the early 19th centuries across different parts of the world in the name of religion (see Malleus Maleficarum, the Papal decree authorizing the killings). There is the weight of history behind The Witch so sceptics should not dismiss the story as occultist fantasy.  This particular film is not your standard horror with floating sheets or flying broomstick-type special effects, but a tale based on what we know of the history of religion and its battle with satanic adversaries.

Set in the woods of New England, it’s a story of a devout God-fearing family that is excommunicated by the colony’s religious elders for “prideful conceit” and banished to the wilderness. Marital and spiritual tension is high and life is brutal on a farm that produces too little for two adults and five children to survive. The youngest, a baby, mysteriously disappears while being minded by the eldest daughter Thomasin. This inexplicable event is followed by a series of happenings that on their own might be explainable but as a pattern raise the question of whether evil forces are at work. Eerie appearances of menacing forms, staring animal eyes, and faint hints of erotic occultism create a gothic terror atmosphere, all without the use of ‘cheap’ digital effects. As the family slowly disintegrates, Thomasin’s coming of age becomes her entry into a world of fallen women whose faith could not protect them from the fearful unknown.

The power of this story lies in its ability to trace in small and believable steps the circumstances leading towards a young girl being accused of witchcraft and her actual progression into the dark world of the occult. The sets, costumes, and an old-English style script give the film authenticity and reflect production values beyond its modest budget. The brave mix of historical drama, horror and fantasy results in an engaging story with all the hallmarks of an independent production that stands out from the pack. Some will find the ending fanciful but whether you read it literally or metaphorically, this is a gem of a film and will be the best you will see in the horror genre for a long time.

3

Director: Robert Eggers

Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie

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