The Witch is an evil film. It’s a haunted strip of celluloid, the kind of movie the conservative far-right is terrified will have teenagers trying to summon the devil in their garage – a sick, sadistic experience helmed by a director both disgusted by and fascinated with the human race and its frailty. It’s also a masterpiece and one of the most singularly impressive cinematic debuts in recent memory.
The plot is bare bones. A family in the 17th century are banished from their plantation home, cast out into the wilderness. Once there, they find themselves facing escalating horrors, as the daughter of the clan (expertly played by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy) must navigate horrors both human and supernatural.
The key to the film lies in its simplicity. Writer-director Robert Eggers deliberately strips back the piece, reducing it until it resembles a fairy tale. The Brothers Grimm are the fathers of horror cinema after all, and The Witch pays homage to them in a number of ways, from the haunted wood that sits as the film’s fulcrum, to a key moment with a rosy-red apple.
Though there is little blood shed onscreen (save one sudden, gasp-inducing shot of violence in the third act), the dread is palpable, and before long the film becomes an assemblage of bad omens. Just as unsettlingly, Eggers shoots his totems lovingly, framing yellow-eyed rabbits and blood-filled eggs as though they were bouquets of roses or perfect sunsets.
Fittingly, though all the cast does fine work, with Kate Dickie nailing the role of the overzealous, grieving mother, the true star of the film is not human. It’s a goat, the perfectly monikered Black Phillip, a presence that exudes demonic energy and clings to the film like a curse.
The Witch doesn’t as much end as it does expertly collapse in on itself, falling apart like a burnt-out bonfire, and though the film opens itself up to thousands of readings – is it about repressed female sexuality? The short-sightedness of religion? The fall of man? – the conclusion refuses to pander to a single theory. It’s more an invocation than an ending; a harrowing celebration of sadism.
See The Witch. It will change you. Though perhaps not for the better.
The Witch opens in cinemas on Thursday March 17.