With debut feature The Witch, director Robert Eggers explodes onto the horror scene in a way that feels comparable to the spectacular entrance David Robert Mitchell made last year with It Follows. His second feature and first horror, it was a horror film in the true sense of the word, eschewing cheap scares and tired reliance on genre conventions in favour of pure, unfiltered dread. Well-acted and artfully shot, it found success, critically and commercially, among casual cinema-goers and hardcore genre fans alike. The Witch is poised to do the same: meticulous period detail, outstanding performances and steadfast commitment to its rewarding slowburn combine to produce a future classic that begins as “a New England folktale” and ends as pure nightmare fuel.
Telling the deceptively simple story of a 17th century English family living in New England who are banished from their town in the opening scene for mostly unspecified offences, The Witch sets out to unsettle from the opening frame. Following the family’s exile, youngest son Samuel mysteriously disappears, and the consequence of this provides the film with one of its most genuinely unsettling moments. Dispensing with a scene this dark before the fifteen minute mark is a bold move in a film that’s full of them: an ambitious bid for your undivided attention, and the first in a chain of events that will see the film worm its way under your skin in a way few have managed in recent years.
Eggers’ style recalls the work both of the aforementioned Mitchell and of Michael Haneke, frostily depriving The Witch‘s sparse violence of its payoff and instead dwelling, cold and unflinching, on its brutal aftermath. The less you know about the film going in, the better: it’s an escalating nightmare best experienced without preconception.Uniformly well-acted (most notably from a truly sterling set of child actors), profoundly unsettling and deeply scary, it’s a film of rare effectiveness, and one that will rightfully be remembered in years to come as a landmark.