The Witch

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Witches are one of those archetypal monsters – along with vampires and werewolves – whose mythology is very well known after a few centuries of their depictions in art and literature.

And yet think of the witches you know from TV and movies like The Wizard of Oz, Sleeping Beauty, Bewitched, Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia – all of them kids’ stories with comedy or adventure and very little real horror.

There’s really only been one movie that treated witches like truly deadly supernatural creatures on a par with Dracula or the Wolf Man – The Blair Witch Project – and even then there was nothing inherently ‘witchy’ about the antagonist. With no potions containing eye of newt mixed up by a cackling and crazy old woman, the Blair Witch could have been merely a human serial killer.

Most other movies that involve witchcraft from Rosemary’s Baby to Suicide Squad are about the philosophy rather than the practice of worshipping evil, without any of the trappings like black cats and pointed hats, and while Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters contained some of those iconic elements it was an action comedy, not a horror film.

All of which is a long winded way of saying Robert Eggers’ The Witch might be the first movie in a long time (maybe ever) to treat witches according to the mythology we know in an actual horror movie.

It does so in just a couple of scenes that effortlessly evoke everything we know about the witches from horror literature, and it doesn’t hold back on it – from the titular creature killing and grinding up a human baby to smear all over her pasty, aged skin to a quietly horrifying slo-mo flight away from the camera on a broom, her hunched visage slowly engulfed by the glowing full moon.

That the movie depicts the horror of literary witchcraft so skilfully is a little bit of a shame because of the sense of remoteness from the characters’ plight. The old world speech employed {‘thy’ instead of ‘your’, for example) is authentic for the 17th century setting but fairly impenetrable – even with subtitles it’s hard to keep up.

Which isn’t to say Eggers fails at what he does, because every frame is beautifully constructed and the sparse script is very well written. On top of all the technical skill he wields as a director, he also elicits incredible performances from some actors of very tender years.

Most of the attention during the theatrical release was on Anya Taylor Joy as oldest daughter Thomasin, but young Harvey Scrimshaw as her brother Caleb is astonishing – the sequence where he wakes from a coma having insanely joyous visions that God is welcoming him into heaven is a heart-stopper.

But long before that, we meet the family – parents William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children – being banished from their settlement somewhere in the New World, setting off to make their own way by building a homestead in the wilderness and praying – often.

Religious belief is actually a central concern of both the family and the script, but despite faith being such a presence in their lives, it can’t protect them from something unholy in the nearby woods.

We see its first terrifying action when Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with her infant sister. After covering her eyes for only seconds, she’s horrified to look down and find the baby gone. It starts a chain reaction that sends the family into a pit of desperation, terror and madness, all of them eventually turning on each other in their grief and fear even as they try to stick to their pious beliefs.

You’re sure there’ll be no pat Hollywood happy ending in something so dark and well made, and Eggers indeed obliges you. As well as signalling the arrival of several new talents to watch in director Eggers and star Joy (who’s already appeared in AI thriller Morgan), it takes one of our culture’s most iconic horror characters back to very thrilling and authentic roots.

And yes, the goat is fucking terrifying.