Like most teenagers in high school, I was assigned Arthur Miller’s The Crucible which, to be quite frank, bored me to tears. I partially blame my teacher. In literature class we learned about the parallels between the Salem witch trials and the Red Scare of the 1950s. In a very strict and rational tone, our teacher instructed us what to think about the play without much room for discussion.
As I read the text and later watched the 1996 film adaptation, I saw the characters as just stand-ins for Miller’s condemnation of Joe McCarthy’s crusade against suspected communists. It's a message I agreed with but when writers are too obvious in their intentions, the work suffers. The characters didn’t feel like real people whose perspective I can share: I couldn’t see the evil and madness they experienced that led to such mass hysteria and tragedy.
This came to mind when I saw The Witch, the remarkable debut by Robert Eggers. Like Miller’s play, the film takes place during the Puritan settlement of New England in the 17th century. There's accusations of witchcraft. Both stories show, quite effectively, the destructive consequences of religious fanaticism and repression.
But The Witch is a psychological horror movie that treats witchcraft as a real threat. A family is banished from a Puritan hamlet due to heresy committed by the patriarch William (Ralph Ineson). What he exactly did is unclear. After the family settles on a small, desolate farm in the New England woods, the youngest child disappears while in the care of the daughter Thomasin, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Things get worse after their crops die and Caleb, the eldest son, vanishes in the middle of the night. The family is on the verge of despair and soon suspects Thomasin of witchcraft.
In an interview with Vice Talks Film, Eggers said he wanted to make a “Puritan’s Nightmare.” To some extent, he successfully brought that nightmare to the screen. The film convincingly depicts the hardships and dread prevailing over the family that is slowly destroyed by a supernatural force. The cinematography effectively captures the bleak New England rural environment. This starkness gives The Witch an unsettling, chilling atmosphere rather than the gratuitous gore-fest so common in horror movies. There are genuinely disturbing scenes that stay with you long after this movie is over.
The foreboding mood comes partly from the religious fervor that dominates the family’s everyday life. In several scenes Katherine, the matriarch played by Kate Dickie, prays incessantly and talks of sin and evil. The film also suggests of an incestuous attraction Caleb has for sister Thomasin, a result of the sexual repression that was so much a part of Puritanism. The oppressive guilt felt by the characters is manifested in a witch lurking in the woods.
The Witch is not without its flaws. To achieve a level of historical accuracy, Eggers wrote the dialogue in Elizabethan English, an achievement that is quite impressive. This adds to the movie’s realism, but sometimes it left me feeling detached from the characters (perhaps this was Eggers' intent but it’s not so clear). There are scenes when the dialogue sounds unconvincing as if we are witnessing actors practicing their lines rather than performing them. And after the movie builds up all this tension, the ending feels anti-climactic and a little predicable.
In the last decade or so, mainstream horror films have been dominated by zombies, vampires and serial killers. The theme of witchcraft isn’t seen that often in the genre anymore. The Witch is an eerie and disturbing tale of a supernatural figure that, in recent times, had lost its ability to genuinely frighten audiences. It’s also a film that takes a bleak look into the Puritan psyche in the early history of North America.