THE WITCH

A Fairy­tale Of New Eng­land

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - Ian Berri­man

Our sec­ond take on the grim ’n’ scary 17th cen­tury hor­ror.

re­leased 18 July (Blu-ray/ dvd)/4 July (down­load) 2016 | 15 | blu-ray/dvd/down­load Di­rec­tor robert eg­gers Cast anya Tay­lor-Joy, ralph Ine­son, Kate dickie, Harvey scrimshaw

When was the last time you were re­motely dis­turbed or dis­qui­eted by the idea of a witch? Decades of com­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion in pop­u­lar cul­ture, with all the associated para­pher­na­lia of broom­sticks and pointy Hal­loween hats, has thor­oughly di­min­ished their threat – no one wakes up scream­ing think­ing of Grot­bags, do they? Well, writer/di­rec­tor Robert Eg­gers’ near-per­fect de­but might just re­bal­ance the scales.

It un­folds in a time pe­riod ex­plored sur­pris­ingly rarely by hor­ror: the 17th cen­tury. Ralph Ine­son plays William, fa­ther of a fam­ily who, after be­ing cast out of a Pu­ri­tan set­tle­ment in New Eng­land, must make their own way in the world, and who make the fate­ful de­ci­sion to build a farm close to some sin­is­ter woods.

It’s a fam­ily that be­lieves de­voutly and un­ques­tion­ingly in sin, evil and the wrath of God, and over the next hour and a half their faith is tested to the limit as they’re be­set by catas­tro­phe after catas­tro­phe. First their baby boy dis­ap­pears, im­pos­si­bly snatched away in the space of a sec­ond by some un­seen force. Then young Caleb gets lost in the woods, be­guiled by a buxom beauty. Then there are the twins, whose talk of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the fam­ily goat, Black Phillip, may be more than just a child­ish game…

It’s a dark fairy­tale, es­sen­tially – as the film’s subti­tle, A New Eng­land Folk­tale, ac­knowl­edges. But it’s one which feels ut­terly au­then­tic. That’s largely down to Eg­gers’ script, which takes great pains to make the char­ac­ters speak as the peo­ple of the time would have, with Bib­li­cal al­lu­sions left hang­ing in the air, and much of the di­a­logue drawn from jour­nals, di­aries and court records. You would have thought all the re­sul­tant “thy”, “thee” and “thou”-ing would be off­putting. Any­thing but. After a while you ad­just to the olde worlde reg­is­ter – just as peo­ple do to, say, the ur­ban de­motic of The Wire – and it achieves a sort of rough-hewn mu­si­cal­ity.

The Witch looks stun­ning too. Eg­gers and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Jarin Blaschke present us with painterly com­po­si­tions that are re­mark­ably un­showy; of­ten scenes are shown straight-on, sym­met­ri­cally balanced, with a Kubrick­ian state­li­ness. They es­chew flashy cut­ting – at times it’s al­most as if the film is try­ing to stare you out. The char­ac­ters are reg­u­larly dwarfed by op­pres­sive vis­tas of gloomy clouds and densely tangled branches. And na­ture’s me­nace is mag­ni­fied by Mark Kor­ven’s haunt­ing score, heav­ily rem­i­nis­cent of the work of Pol­ish mod­ernist com­poser Krzysztof Pen­derecki, whose walls of dis­cor­dant vi­o­lin shrieks were such an es­sen­tial com­po­nent of the suc­cess of The Shin­ing. It’s as if the sen­sa­tion of ris­ing panic has been tran­scribed in mu­si­cal no­ta­tion.

Per­for­mances are ex­cel­lent all round, in par­tic­u­lar from Anya Tay­lor-Joy as teenage daugh­ter Thomasin, a girl on the verge of wom­an­hood whose ha­bit­ual scape­goat­ing by her par­ents even­tu­ally threat­ens to have fa­tal con­se­quences, and Ralph Ine­son as the pride­ful pa­tri­arch strug­gling

It’s a dark fairy­tale that feels ut­terly au­then­tic

to keep his fam­ily from dis­in­te­grat­ing. Though Ine­son has achieved a slightly higher pro­file of late thanks to roles in Harry

Pot­ter and Game Of Thrones, he re­mains for most peo­ple one of those tele­vi­sion faces/voice-over artists whose beaky fea­tures and rock­ery of York­shire vow­els are in­stantly recog­nis­able, but whose name is al­ways just out of reach. Here he’s a rev­e­la­tion. You’ll never think of him as Finchy from The

Of­fice again. True, there’s noth­ing stag­ger­ingly orig­i­nal about The

Witch. It doesn’t rein­vent or rev­o­lu­tionise the genre. But nei­ther does it crank out old clichés. When Caleb re­turns, naked and bab­bling like some­one pos­sessed, you brace your­selves for half an hour of Ex­or­cist homage – but thank­fully, it never comes. There are no corpses sud­denly drop­ping into shot, no sin­is­ter shapes flit­ting across the front of frame and – un­til the very fi­nal scene – no flashy vis­ual ef­fects… just fear of the un­known, and a heart-squeez­ing, con­stantly es­ca­lat­ing, crush­ing sense of loom­ing dis­as­ter, as a fam­ily is torn apart by their para­noid ter­ror and the power of pure evil. The best hor­ror film of 2016? It’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a bet­ter one com­ing along.

Ex­tras It’s not of­ten that bonus fea­tures drop off on their jour­ney across the At­lantic, but dis­ap­point­ingly this is one case where they have. Buy the re­gion one and you get di­rec­tor’s com­men­tary, a short fea­turette, a screen­ing Q&A and a gallery of de­signs. The UK re­lease, we’re as­sured, has noth­ing. A curse upon those re­spon­si­ble!

The pro­duc­tion de­sign team built the farm us­ing the same tools and tech­niques they would’ve had in the 17th cen­tury.

The turnout for the an­nual barn dance was dis­ap­point­ing.

“I hate pre­dic­tive text!”

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