Sundance 2015: The Witch

Repeat after me,

Do you know about The Witch?

Got it? Good. You’re going to be hearing and saying this phrase a lot in the coming months, as the best film at Sundance 2015 terrifies the world.

The first feature from the dazzlingly talented Robert Eggers, The Witch is the story of a family living alone at the edge of the New England woods in the 1630s. Expelled from their Puritan community and troubled by a rotten harvest, their lives become more unstable due to a presence hiding within the trees. Cracks appear in the family unit, the five children start to behave in strange ways, and a disappearance threatens to destroy the bonds they badly need.

Now I’m no horror fanatic – too often I’m too aware of the old cliché that ‘it’s just a film’. By the end of The Witch I was literally shaking with fear, barely able to catch the final minutes through my fingers yet unable to tear my eyes away. It is the most compelling film I have seen in years, and the scariest.

Much of the iron grip placed on the audience is due to an obsessive level of period detail. The Jacobean language, delivered with vigour by the cast, was taken from texts of the time including accounts of witchcraft. Almost everything on screen was created by the film team, from the hand-sewn clothes to Ralph Ineson as the God-fearing William actually chopping stacks of wood in several tension-building moments. On top of this the film is shot in natural light using lenses from the 1940s, with some scenes by flickering candlelight inside the family barn. We see the world as they would have done, and their fear becomes ours.

The technical work that goes into such detail pays off enormously, as the film has a chilling visual style. I lost count of the moments that made me gasp in a mixture of awe and fear. With cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Eggers mixes a whole range of shots to convey the increasing confusion of a family who begin to turn on each other as their situation becomes more bedevilled. These are masterfully shaped by editor Louise Ford into an overwhelming tale of superstition and repression, and the contagious nature of fear.

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In horror sometimes performances are overrun by plot; here every one is memorable in its own right. Anya Taylor-Joy as eldest daughter Thomasin is marvellous, keeping our sympathies on board while allowing for her family’s growing suspicion that she may be infected by a darkness. She is a talent destined for the very top. Harvey Scrimshaw as younger brother Caleb shows both shoots of growing up and the childish qualities of twins Jonas and Mercy. I especially loved seeing Kate Dickie and Ineson, both from Game of Thrones parts, take the roles of the grief and fear-stricken parents Catherine and William with such relish. Dickie remarkably balances several levels of religious hysteria with a true motherly quality. Ineson is extraordinary as the hangdog William, caught between ideals of religious purity and the fallibility of himself and his family – not to mention his daughter’s growing independence. Eggers made the smart decision to switch the family’s heritage from Essex to Yorkshire based on Ineson’s accent – it is in itself a terrifying growl that will shake you to your core. It would be a disgrace to spoil any surprises here, but both actors have scenes with animals that you won’t forget in a hurry.

Due to the gimmicks of the past fifteen years the horror genre has lost the standing gained through, amongst others, Kubrick and Friedkin (the influence of both can be seen in The Witch). This is a film that should restore some of that stature. There are several well-crafted shocking and gruesome moments, including one in the first few minutes, but on the whole it is less gory, more story. This focus on the troubles of this family hits a much deeper place. So spread the word – The Witch is devastatingly good, and it is here to stay.

A24 Films and DirecTV bought the US distribution rights at Sundance; Universal Pictures will cover foreign territories. There is no trailer or release info yet so stay tuned to Depends On The Dream here and at @dreamdepends for the very latest…

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