There are few cinematic experiences a filmgoer has when they see a new, groundbreaking work at a cinema. Though nobody would have expected it, new indie film The Witch is one of those cinematic experiences that many render impossible in the modern day of the Hollywood studios machine.
The title screen reading “The VVitch: A New-England Folktale” introduces us to the world of early America. It immediately blends the supernatural paranoia of the new world with the desolate and pre-modern living, depicting as family’s life turning upside down after they are exiled from their village and forced to live out in the wilderness that is their new home.
Set more than half a century before the Salem witch trials – probably the first thing that comes to mind when witnessing this 1630-set film – there are naturally lots of allusions throughout. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the eldest daughter in the central family, who has now created a home in a small remote plantation, due to their father William’s (Ralph Ineson) rigid religious beliefs getting them exiled earlier. Things especially go awry when their baby sibling is stolen during what seems to be a typical day. But from here, all the strange events begin to accumulate as the audience becomes aware that someone or something lurks in the forest that borders the property.
Feeling the pressure of her losing her younger sibling, Thomasin and her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) venture into the woods to uncover what happened. But upon their return, the family begins to suspect that she is the witch that is terrorizing them. And with not enough information ourselves, the viewers begin to wonder if we too are delving into this American fanaticism that lead to the Salem witch trials in the first place.
What makes The Witch is so rare and makes such a profound impact is that every element of production has been so carefully thought out. The isolation and otherness that the family feels are so expertly encapsulated here through the cinematography and outstanding direction work. The old English dialogue breathes fresh air into the horror genre that is all too commonly restricted to contemporary horror or period pieces, which the film exists in.
What makes the film so spectacular is the connections it makes between the natural world and the unearthly one. Every moment is shot with fantastic production design and costuming, making it feel authentic and rich with texture. Even the things that the audience doesn’t see ranks among the scariest because of the film’s pacing and editing. In fact the tone is what differentiates The Witch from other horror films – it’s not gory, not violent and non-threatening but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a punch. It’ll have you thinking long after you leave the cinema.
Published in The Australia Times, 1 April, 2016.