Ninety-two minutes of watching Satan and a coven of witches tear a family asunder is for gothic horror fans only. This psychological film is deemed a folktale, and writer/director Roger Eggers has captured the cadences of seventeen century religious-speak by incorporating diary and journal entries read from this period.”The devil holds fast her eyelids” the father tells his son of his mother’s grief-filled taking-to-bed, “we can search no more.”
I find religiously themed horror especially scary. “The Sentinel” and ” The Exocist” and “Rosemary’s Baby” almost did me in. In “The Witch”,once baby Sam is stolen on the last peekaboo, I was trembling. Grimy hands and taloned fingers going over the baby’s body and a sharp implement drawing blood for a roiling pot did not help. We know Baby Sam is gone despite the search.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke sets the stage with ominous dense forest shots. Trees are tangled with no back lighting. The skies are not blue. Everything is grayish, muslin drab. Even the moon ‘s light is blackened by a woman’s silhouette. In the opening scene, a family leaves a Puritan plantation because of the father’s prideful arguement with community elders. We see Wiliam ( Ralph Iverson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their four children riding a cart over grassy terrain. They are hard working zealots who confess their sins, believe they deserve shame and misery as they beg for God’s mercy.
We are introduced to the eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) around fourteen years of age and her twelve-year-old brother Caleb ( Harvey Scrimshaw). Both are accomplished actors who draw the viewers into their harsh world where crops fail and capturing food is not easy. Tenets of Calvinism and penitential tones are practiced by rote. “I am of corrupt nature and empty of grace”. Fear that sins are not pardoned accentuates that their’s is not a loving God. Jonas and Mercy,the seven year old twins, are more playful but more unnerving. They chase and sing to the cloven- footed goat and conjure great mischief. All are told ” I like you not outside the farm. Stray not from the brook.”
One by one children and parents accuse and dissemble. Family dynamics hold our interest as much as missing bodies and harbingers of the devil’s workings. The family reads scripture and William says that “we must find light in our darkness.” ” We must turn ourselves to God~ not to ourselves.” Katherine tells her husband ,”I never meant to be a shrew to thee. My heart is turned to stone.” After Baby Sam, Caleb is the next child lost. He is “witched” and sent into delirium.
Thomasin conjures the devil after going through hell. He whispers temptations, “Would thou live deliciously? “Would thou like to see the world?” “I will guide thy hand to write thy name.” We want to be her protector and be the one to yell,”Silence, creature!” Disturbing in its joylessness and supported by Mark Korven’s tonal score, this film will be discussed not so much for the beliefs it shows, but for what those beliefs generate. “The Witch” is a grand precursor to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”.