Dir: Robert Eggers (2015)
… or The VVitch, if you like, is 33-year-old director, Robert Eggers‘ staggering debut. This is a horror film with hardly a jump scare in sight. A horror film which manages to loudly scratch against the grain and live quietly behind your eyelids as you lay down to sleep. A horror film where tone is the single twisted knob on the technical interface of what a terror should be. It’s subtitle; A New England Folktale and it’s muddy, talky, naturally lit world should excite an audience, weary of stock, “final girl” horror but may infuriate an army of slick, technical, Insidious loving shock jocks.
The 17th century setting, with much of the dialogue taken from timely journals, painstakingly researched by the folk tale infatuated Eggers, delivers us a proud but forlorn family banished from a Puritan plantation in New England. Their devout father, William, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, twins Mercy and Jonas and their expectant mother, Katherine, are forced trundle out to the edge of the woods and set up a their farm amongst the mud and the nettles. This fine intro, punctuated with a discordant Kubrickian soundtrack and contra-zoomed landscapes lets Eggers push his influences to the fore but even for horror freaks it isn’t at all derivative, in fact it is as joyous to watch as Paul Thomas Anderson‘s ominous portrayal of the desert in the opening 15 minutes of There Will Be Blood.
It is obvious there is something very wrong here and through long lensed stares into the dark shadows of the trees surrounding their cabin, Eggers admits, up front, that he has both everything and nothing to hide; There’s a witch in them woods. This is the real genius; By fixing the game and breaking the rules, showing some serious cards early on Eggers refocuses the film on the family dynamic with the 15-year-old Thomasin (a career making performance from Anya Taylor-Joy) putting her burgeoning womanhood right in the centre. The squabbling which ensues is underpinned by an ambiguous discomfort, the looming trees, some odd farm animals, a disdain for religion amongst children and a real serious question of faith in a place which seems gleefully hellbent on destroying everything.
The performances, soaked in olde English, have already raised a few eyebrows but if you have a slither of concentration left you’ll know that Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger are fantastic as the mother and children but, undoubtedly, the film belongs to Taylor-Joy; An assured and difficult performance from the 20-year-old should see her shoot to fame. The same can also be said for Eggers whose folkloric obsession, knack for dread above shock and some exceptional restraint may well see him go on to chill for many, many years. The VVitch isn’t for everyone but it is certainly worth having a go at staring into the woods for 90 minutes…