Fair warning, some spoilers for the film follow.
I remember hearing very good things about the horror film The Witch, but somehow the stars never aligned and I did not have a chance to watch it. Fortunately, I have no rectified that situation, and I can say without reservation that it is one of the finest horror films I have ever seen.
It is the 17th Century, and the young woman Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) joins her father William (Ralph Ineson), mother (Kate Dickie), and her younger siblings Caleb, Mercy, Jonas, and baby Samuel. When the titular witch kidnaps the baby and uses him to restore her lost youth, she sets in motion the gradual dissolution of the family into madness and despair, death and chaos.
Now, let me clarify. This is not one of those blood and gore spattered butcherfests that passes for horror in this day and age (not that there’s necessarily anything with that). This is horror in the old-fashioned, psychological sense of the word, where we in the audience know little more than the characters themselves do. We are sutured largely into two perspectives, that of the increasingly bewildered William and the increasingly frustrated (yet also bewildered) Thomasin. Though the camera offers us periodic glimpses into events that occur outside of their ken, these are rare, and for the most part we remain as bewildered and frightened by this inhospitable world as our protagonists.
As any good horror film director knows, 90% of the effect can be created through the effective use of music and sound, and that is certainly the case here. The score makes extensive use of strings, which often lilt and careen wildly from dark and somber to screaming and frantic. The fact that these shifts often occur without narrative explanation makes them all the more unsettling.
One of the things that I most enjoyed about the film was the way in which it brought out the reality that, for these early settlers, England is still in living memory. The old country is, for Thomasin at least, a space of lost innocence and security, a stark contrast to the brooding world that she currently inhabits. It is significant, I think, that she asks Caleb whether he remembers a patch of sunlight that occurred in their old home, and while he does not recall it, it occupies a singularly important place in her own memory.
This early America is a space full of dark, forbidding power, where the wild has not yet been tamed and where the devil is, in fact, just waiting to strike down the unwary. The events that unfold–the death of Samuel, the grisly deaths, the dissolution of the family, the revelation that the goat Black Philip is indeed the personification of Satan–all occur without a great deal of narrative explanation. Oh, there are hints at why this particular family has been singled out, such as when Caleb seems to have a moment of lust toward Thomasin, but for the most part these horrifying events seem random.
Further, what makes the film so unsettling is how much remains unresolved and unexplained by the end of the film. Who (or what) was the witch of the title? Was she merely some misunderstood and abused young woman driven into the wild, where she was ensnared by the Devil? Was she, like Thomasin, profoundly alienated by the culture in which she lived and sought out the only source of power available to her, no matter what the cost? This is my own personal preference, given that the film ends with Thomasin at last embracing the promises held out to her by Philip and joining in with the other witches that have gathered in the forest. While unsettling, this last moment is in many ways a reclamation of the agency that she has struggled so mightily to attain.
The Witch definitely belongs in that pantheon of what I consider some of the finest horror films, those films that really tap into the darkest, most visceral parts of our collective psyche. It draws on the great fears that still haunt us–the porousness of the family, the potential uncanniness of our own progeny, the intractability of the religious unconscious–to both expiate our collective sins an experience an utterly alien and terrifying world.