How tightly the Devil grips you may come down to a matter of religion. The current sociopolitical climate makes it very clear that the Devil is alive and well for many people in the United States. Even when it’s just a matter of rhetoric, the belief in a literal Devil is a potent force in our society and probably always has been. This is in spite of the fact that popular culture has reduced and overexposed the “ultimate enemy of humanity” to being about as frightening as Santa Claus. Honestly, I usually laugh when I hear someone talk about the Devil in a horror movie I laugh and tick off a star from my rating. More often than not, the Devil is used as a lazy shorthand for something scary. Particularly so when the Devil’s only notable evil is that he doesn’t obey God.
The Witch—directed by Robert Eggers—does everything it can to make you forget the last three-hundred or so years of Satanic hijinks. The film is set in the very God-fearing world of New England (circa 1630), and recreates a world where survival was far from certain . . . one where Satan was much more than a heavy metal cliché.
William (Ralph Ineson) is a father whose strong religious convictions make him unable to abide the sinful manner of the leadership of the plantation town he calls home. The town’s leaders, as a result, banish him from the plantation which is a sentence he gladly accepts. He takes his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and family to resettle near a forest, located a few day’s ride from the plantation. The family sets up a farm and does the best they can with land they begin to suspect is cursed. Teen-aged daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the eldest, followed by her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the younger twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and a newborn baby. Other notable characters include a dog and a very charismatic goat by the name of Black Phillip.
Things really start to fall apart when Thomasin decides to watch the infant at the edge of the forest. She plays peek-a-boo with the baby and in a single moment of blindness the child vanishes, presumably into the dark and twisted woods. This is only the beginning of what will become a long descent into accusations, confessions, possession, and bloody murder as the family tries to find the cause of their scourge. Despite their faith, they are ill-prepared for this battle against an evil that is as much within as without.
The Witch takes itself seriously; as a result, it portrays an presence that has been hard to find in cinema since the height of the “Satanic ’70s”. Eggers wisely dodges identifying the evil with any certainty. Hullabaloo from the Church of Satan aside, the film makes it clear there is a palpable force walking in the shadows of this forest and it is a real threat to the family. The family comes to understand the danger as best they can, but they’d be wiser to wonder if the force that endangers their family is something much older than the rise of Christian empires. Unlike in other epics of possession (namely The Exorcist), there is no manner for these believers to confront the “enemy”. Like a fly in a web, every move they make only draws them closer and closer. The power that mocks them does so from behind the eyes of a raven, a rabbit, a goat, and a child. You don’t need to believe in this devil to fear it.
Robert Eggers is a production designer by trade, and his crafty attention to detail makes The Witch all the more resonant. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke has created wilderness imagery on par with The Revenant. These misty, moody images lift The Witch even further above the bulk of horror filmmaking of the past few years; both motion pictures create a world that is lit by cold and merciless light. The performances are painfully grounded across the cast, and there isn’t a moment that rings hollow or insincere. This is particularly true for the youngest actors (Grainger and Dawson), who bring terrible overtones to their simple child’s play. Strangely enough, the goat who plays Black Phillip manages a few star turns himself. The film has deliberate pacing, which is more inline with indie European horror films than the ruthless efficiency of the Blumhouse model of modern horror. People looking for “closet-jumpers” and slasher chases will be disappointed. Likewise, folks who look for horror movies to confirm a sense of moral certainty will be equally lost before the final credits roll.
The Witch is a dense and powerful film. There are many ways to take it, and the ambiguity of the ending only broadens the range of those interpretations. Some will no doubt take issue with the portrayal of the witch at the center of it all. Pagans may balk at the portrayal of their fellows, but might also approve of the hard look at Old World hypocrisy. As ugly as the deeds done to thwart Satan ultimately are, there is something compelling about what he offers in his simple book of signatures. The film isn’t shy about making clear the seductiveness of deep, dark fur, warm blushing skin, or primordial, fiery flights of passion. By the end of it all, one thing is very clear: the Devil we know is nothing compared to the fear of the one we don’t.