A dark-edged darling at Sundance earlier this year, The Witch, Robert Eggers’ directorial debut, arrives at the London Film Festival on a cloud of praise that soars higher than any broomstick ever could. Set some 60 years before the Salem witch trails of the 1690s, and inspired by writings from journals of the period, it’s a film that plays ominously with Puritan folklore, capturing the hysteria conjured by beliefs in spirits and sorcery effectively, but struggling to cast a spell likely to leave the audience in a frenzy.
In the world of The Witch, nights are dark, and full of terrors; if disease or famine doesn’t overcome your family, then it’s those practising black magic in the woods over yonder you’ll be begging for mercy. That’s certainly what devout Christians William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) discover, after their family relocates to a humble farm that sits on the edge of a dense forest wilderness, having been banished from the New England plantation where they once resided.
In the days that follow their arrival, the family’s condition deteriorates as the harsh elements take a toll on their new life of self-sufficiency, and food grows even scarcer. Then, one morning, William and Katherine find themselves thrown into complete despair and forced to face an unknown evil, after their infant son inexplicably disappears whilst in the care of his oldest sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy).
Writing and directing his first feature-length film, having previously tried his hand at a couple of shorts, Eggers establishes himself as a filmmaker with freshman flourish. His approach to horror is admirably restrained; championing atmosphere and authenticity over gruesome gore and shock scares. The 17th Century is pictured as cold and grubby – speckled with mud, bathed in grey skies – and the dialogue initially impenetrable, adapted directly from 1600s source materials and spoken verbatim by the cast.The bleak period setting that’s crafted is one ingrained with a volatile façade that’s as beguiling as it is baleful. DP Jarin Blaschke’s use of muted light and pastel hues, amalgamated with Mark Korven’s aggressive score, instilling an unsettling air of disquiet so threatening, you worry it has the power to asphyxiate you.
Through it all seeps the spiritual obsessions of the era. As pressure and paranoia begin to mount within each family member, Thomasin faces accusations of witchery from all those people she holds dear. And after she returns alone having travelled into the woods with her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), her mother and father all but condemn her.
The mood is meant to be one of rapidly rising madness, which Eggers sustains in the early stages through an unremitting use of Kubrickian crescendo. The director’s over-reliance on such a dramatically pummelling device, however, soon suffocates all we see on the screen. Despite the best efforts of Anya Taylor-Joy, who maintains a psychologically unnerving presence to the end, the intensity of Thomasin’s conflict with her parents and siblings is displaced by the film’s unrelentingly destructive disposition – and is probably not helped by the excessively theatrical performances of Ralph Ineson and, in particular, Kate Dickie.
There’s no enveloping cohesiveness here. A sudden dependence on jump scares in the final act and a frustrating committal to cliché, suggesting that even Eggers eventually lost confidence in his own material. There is plenty here that has the power to frighten you, but what’s ultimately haunting about The Witch, is how it squanders so much of its promise.