SAVAGE at the London Film Festival: The Witch

THOMAS HETHERINGTON begins his series exploring the best of the BFI London Film Festival with ‘The Witch’.

A young girl on the cusp of womanhood; a dark wood; a babe snatched away into the blackness. It might all sound familiar, but horror cinema hasn’t been here in a very long time. First time writer-director Robert Eggers gets so much right with The Witch, it’s hard to know where to start. To say anything more would be unfair, but grab your crucifix and head to the cinema – you’re going to need it.

The film’s focus is on one family setting up a farm in New England: their own idyllic Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie. It soon becomes abundantly clear that there is something unnatural about the woods. This is a film smothered by the natural world; creepy forests are easy enough to achieve, but everything natural in The Witch becomes a source for alarm, from a rabbit to a river. Nothing is sacred about God’s creation here. The wind whips around the family’s feeble house, reminding them and us that there is some mysterious power afoot. The family, isolated, are left with only their faith to calm themselves. You’ll be praying with them before the runtime is up.

The film is entirely in the tongue of the time and whilst the continual ‘fie upon thee’s’ and ‘dust it now’s’ may jar at first, they add a rustic reality to this far away time and place. It feels tangible. The cast get their mouths around the dialogue with relative ease, all giving earthy, grounded performances. Occasionally the Yorkshire accents wander a little further north than they perhaps should do, but this is very solid work otherwise. Anna Taylor-Joy brings an otherworldy air to the film’s heroine Thomasin. Her pale ethereal beauty marks her out amongst the dark and grit of the film. She brilliantly plays with the duality of a character who may or may not know more than she confesses. At times she seems simultaneously innocent and sinful, pure and conniving; this is a fine performance. Everyone else in the film keeps up the pace. There are a few moments of patchy child acting – but that’s a minor, probably unfair, quibble.

The film is lit mostly by natural light or candles and fires, and this only adds to the dreadful atmosphere of the piece. The flickering candlelight echoes the fragility of the family and how little light there really is in their lives. There is an air of John Carpenter about the whole film; doorways are left open that demand to be crept into, there is a constant feeling that something awful is lurking just off screen and waiting to slip into frame. The third act is perhaps ripe for parody, but the film is deadly serious, demanding you go with it, that you follow it into the darkness. Fear and laughter are two sides of the same coin and Eggers manages to walk the line exceedingly well. No amount of ridicule can debase a filmmaker who makes a brave choice and makes it work. This is a film that believes in itself, and you will too.

Image courtesy of variety.com

To call The Witch an out-and-out horror film would be unfair. It’s a slow, insidious, chiller: a film steeped in period perfections. It is a true compliment when I say that I half expected Vincent Price to pop up and deliver his judgement. This has all the hallmarks of an early Hammer Horror, but without the ham. Avoid trailers and go in cold, because you’ll be coming out chilled to the bone.

Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Katie Dickie
Running Time: 90 minutes

The Witch had its British premiere at the BFI Film Festival. It will be released nationwide on 11th March 2016.