A Fairytale Of New England
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!”