Fantastic Fest Review: ‘THE WITCH’ Ratchets Up Gut-Wrenching Tension, Paranoia and Dread

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Preston Barta // Editor

THE WITCH | 90 min | R
Director/Writer: Robert Eggers
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Lucas Dawson, Ellie Grainger and Bathsheba Garnett

In 17th century New England, Puritans settled America. They came fearing persecution from the Church of England and believed in the supernatural. They came with strict beliefs about the role of religion in their life, especially evident in their view of the Devil. In fact, both the Devil and God were real to most citizens. They believed the Devil was an active agent of evil in their daily lives and was responsible for all hardships they encountered, and it was important to respect and fear the Devil even as they detested him.

At the time, Puritans believed women to be particularly weak to the influences of the Devil. Some women were completely lost to God and turned to witchcraft to serve the Devil fully by committing his deeds. Enter THE WITCH, a fascinating horror to behold.

THE WITCH is the type of film for which you cannot prepare someone, no matter how much time and effort is spent laying the groundwork. Since its January premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, it has caused much of a stir, especially now that its nightmarish trailer is released on the web. The film marks a well-crafted and impressive feature debut from Robert Eggers, who knows how to ferociously ratchet up dread, superstition and paranoia to a grand degree.

Many, like myself, witnessed the wrath of this film’s trailer, which slowly built up fear within with its expert use of string chords, drums, and goat bleats. It’s one of the creepiest trailers I’ve ever seen, springing a whirlwind of curiosity amongst us all. In its full form, THE WITCH showcases Eggers’ skill as a filmmaker while also personifying the basest fears.

Set in 1600s New England, the film follows a family as they leave their settlement to live alone in the wilderness. Once a witch steals their youngest child, however, wickedness enters their lives, making their brave new life a grave mistake.

Anya Taylor-Joy makes up the great ensemble in THE WITCH. Photo courtesy of A24.

Anya Taylor-Joy makes up the great ensemble in THE WITCH. Photo courtesy of A24.

Those expecting THE WITCH to be a film that constantly scares in the moment, prepare to be disappointed; this movie doesn’t do jump-scares. There will be audiences, undoubtedly, who will deem it slow and not as chilling as anticipated. Instead, this film gets under your skin and brings those desperate chills later once your thoughts completely form. It’s nearly a sure-fact that it’ll take over your mind and invade your dreams. The slow-burn structure and emphasis on mood over mania make it all the more frightening.

The sheer terror mostly comes in the details– charting the historical with bizarre sequences of physical mutilation, psychological ploys, and one terrifying black goat named Black Phillip. Audiences will largely benefit from brushing up on their folklore, as it’s a Puritan’s nightmare transmitted into viewer’s minds. Eggers, who made an appearance at Fantastic Fest, told festivalgoers that the story that unfolds on screen is “the same stuff you would find in the historical accounts and court records.”

The film’s effect is only strengthened by the fierce and committed ensemble, chiefly Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, who you may recognize from their brief work on GAME OF THRONES. In THE WITCH, they are seamlessly cast and deserve much credit for the film’s power, playing frontier parents who grow threatening and unpredictable as their family shatters around them.

The children, on the other hand, carry the weight of the film on their little shoulders. As the oldest child in the family, Anya Taylor-Joy gives a breakthrough performance, justifying the dense and rich dialogue her character speaks. Her performance is matched by the equally reputable Harvey Scrimshaw. While remaining spoiler-free, one key scene cements Scrimshaw as one of the best child performers in the industry. He and the rest of the cast will leave you staggered and in awe.

It’s said that a good horror film is one that sticks with you, one that you can’t shake for days, possibly even years. A good horror film makes you scared to turn off the light, and makes you run when you could have walked. THE WITCH will undoubtedly be one of those films.

THE WITCH screens again at Fantastic Fest tomorrow (9/29) at 8 p.m. (screening information can be found on fantasticfest.com). The film will be released theatrically on February 26, 2016.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.