Forget Black Phillip and everything supernatural that you may think makes The Witch — the powerful debut film from writer-director Robert Eggers – a remarkable piece of horror cinema. Subtitled A New England Folk-tale, the film initially beguiles as a nightmare odyssey and slice of life from a period in our historic past, but then it does something else: it peels back those layers to reveal a special horror that lies underneath, when doubts over faith, family and societal roles take hold.
The Witch opens in the 1630s, on the trial of William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie): a grim Puritan couple who are about to be banished from their community due to religious fanaticism. Proclaiming himself and his family as among the only true believers, William accepts excommunication without hesitation. His eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), watches from the pews, her eyes capturing all the doubt and fear her parents seem so eager to shirk.
What could have sparked such a radical move? What could drive a man to cast off all the resources of community and take his family into a bleak, unforgiving wilderness with no safety net whatsoever? This question forms the backbone of the film and remains at the core of everything, even after our eponymous witch skitters into sight. In this manner, The Witch, like religious horror classics The Wicker Man (1973) and The Exorcist (1973), uses the notions of faith and doubt as conduits to explore the meaning of ultimate terror.
Beyond spirituality, The Witch also delivers as an intimate drama, depicting a family on the verge of dissolution. Because William believes they are truly among the chosen and that this extreme action will make him and his kin pure in the eyes of God, he’s reluctant to admit that he might have made a terrible mistake. The whole family – including son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and baby Sam – are about to pay the ultimate price for his hubris.
Central to the emotional storms that swirl around the clan is Thomasin. She’s not the true believer her family wants her to be. She’s principally a workhorse, forced to labor in the home and fields throughout the day while acting as a surrogate mother to her younger siblings. Her movements — albeit physical, spiritual or emotional — are constantly controlled and regulated, and we know from her confession, which occurs early in the film, that she rankles at all of these restraints. Her burgeoning sexuality and womanhood is equally problematic. Not only does it make her less willing to be passive, but it also garners the attentions of her father and Caleb, which her mother regards with jealousy and contempt.
Many critics have remarked on the overt feminist messaging that exudes from the film, viewing Thomasin’s journey as one of inevitable independence and patriarchy-busting. This is as much due to the content of the script as to the perception of witches in our culture as powerful, autonomous beings, emblematic of female power and the antidote to religious hypocrisy and male dominance.
Thomasin’s evolution grounds The Witch in a thoroughly modern way, making it feel more reflective of the current culture and thus more relatable. Thomasin may be seen, in the final scene, as finally taking command of her own body and determining her own future. In rejecting the value system she’s known all her life, she ascends totally from her station in the Puritan societal structure. But conversely, her moonlight pledge and subsequent trek into the woods may be interpreted as the ultimate act of defeat, the act of a young woman who can no longer return to anything resembling the past and who must, out of desperation, strike out on a bold new path.
All of these disparate themes – the religious element, the family drama, and the feminist hero journey – come together, setting The Witch on firm storytelling footing. The emphasis is never fully on the supernatural because it doesn’t need to be to keep the plot moving forward, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, nor does it make the film any less of a horror film.
Horror is more than jump scares and some of the most compelling contemporary films in the genre deliver because the narrative strikes a balance between real life and the things that go bump in the night. In really good horror cinema, the line separating those two gets even blurrier. Sometimes, it’s indistinguishable.
In The Babadook, the acclaimed 2014 film by Jennifer Kent, it’s more than just the shadowy silhouette of Mister Babadook that turns the blood ice cold – it’s the slow, creeping realization that Essie Davis’ character has been one bad day away from snapping and killing her child the entire time. In It Follows, another gem from 2014, there’s a specter in the crowd, always lumbering behind and ready to seize – an inherently terrifying concept – but what makes that film stand out beyond the John Carpenter-inspired score is it’s an allegory for sexually transmitted disease. It takes the sex-equals-death formula popularized in 1980s slasher movies but takes it one step further, making it a literal killing mechanism and thus tapping in directly to all the sexual guilt, anxiety, and repressed dread buried inside those scenes.
The Witch is saying something else, but it works in a similar fashion to both The Babadook and It Follows, relying on the internal conflicts between characters and their environment to propel most of the drama. Black Phillip, the spooky old crone we see in the woods and later, the coven of ethereally beautiful women dancing naked around a fire, are part of the setting, not the only drivers of this story.
Whether you opt to take a feminist reading of the film or focus on what it’s trying to say about family, religion or the period, The Witch takes hold because it wants to defy one singular interpretation and is dedicated to drawing all these discordant threads together into one tapestry of terror.