Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and caldron bubble. Robert Eggers' terrifying directorial debut, The Witch, finally arrives in cinemas this weekend - but is the Sundance hype justified?
Set in 1630's New England, The Witch tells the tale of a Puritan family who, after being cast out by their settler community, must forge their own livelihood on the fringes of a dark forest. Gripped by fear and paranoia of the unknown, the family begin to tear themselves apart - but are there darker forces at work in the woods?
Hype surrounding The Witch has been bubbling for a long time now - it originally premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Festival way back in February 2015 before gently gaining enough momentum to receive a limited release in cinemas here in Australia this week.
Thankfully, this hype is more than justified. This is one of those formidable horror films that needs to be seen to be believed, and one that will most definitely haunt your dreams for days afterward.
Debut director Robert Eggers has lavishly poured his passion for all things dark and depraved into The Witch; the end result is a boiling cauldron of tension and atmosphere that resists conventional horror trappings. The assured devotion to its setting is admirable; The Witch transports you to another time in a way that few other period pieces can.
The most integral aspect to this is the thick dialogue, which we're told is drawn from historical records and retellings of actual paranormal encounters. The families heavy English accents and outdated lexicon can be hard to wrap your head around, but it serves the setting and works to further immerse you in the film.
Furthermore, a myriad of technical elements perfectly combine to realise this rich period aesthetic. A drab colour palette and washed-out lighting work in tandem with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio to further develop this notion of suffocating claustrophobia and paranoia. Eggers' lingering direction keeps the camera rolling when most would cut away, burning some indelible imagery into your brain as well as keeping you perched on the edge of your seat.
A quartet of astounding performances afford the film an impressive human element; Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie (both known for their work on HBO's Game of Thrones) play the two god-fearing parents who find themselves struggling to adapt to life in the new world. Dickie is particularly good as the shrill and grieving mother; her more expressive scenes are scarily unpredictable.
However, it's Anya Taylor-Joy that excels the most. She plays Thomasin, the eldest daughter and protagonist through which most of the terror is captured. In her first major motion picture, Taylor-Joy's captivating performance carries much of the film, particularly towards the third act when Eggers dials the terror up to 11. Harvey Scrimshaw (also in his debut film) is hit-and-miss at times, but gets a Exorcist-esque scene that'll leave you slack-jawed.
The Witch is destined to divide audiences into two distinct groups; those who can appreciate and respect it's wholehearted devotion to its setting and premise, and those who arrive expecting something more akin to The Conjuring or Insidious. Take heed, because The Witch is not a conventional frightfest that throws exploitive jump scares and red herrings at the audience. It's a slow-burn that is much more interested in crafting tension than making you shriek in fright. You're more likely to feel unease than pure panic, but that's what makes the creepy experience extra special.
The Verdict: 9.5/10
A modern horror classic that doesn't do half-measures, The Witch is a haunting debut film from Eggers anchored by two stellar debut performances from Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw.
The Witch is in cinemas across Australia now.