The period horror film is such a rare beast.
Why struggle to find era appropriate costumes, sets, and locations when it’s far easier (and cheaper) to grab a digital camera, go off to the producer’s cabin for the weekend, and faux-massacre a bunch of 20-something actors? Heck, even when filmmakers dare to set a horror movie in a time period other than “Present Day,” the backdrop is more often that not completely incidental to the action, window dressing to make up for the film’s other shortcomings and nothing more. Then there are movies like Robert Eggers’ The Witch — the rarest creature of all — a period horror film that favours historical accuracy and atmosphere over things like jump scares and anachronism.
After being banished from their small New England village, a family deemed too pious even for their Puritan neighbours tries for a fresh start on a remote homestead. Life is tough for William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children, but when their infant son goes missing while in the care of their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the youngest children suspect it was the work of a witch.The parents refuse to believe the Devil is at play on their small farm — leaving Thomasin caught in a crossfire of accusation and superstition. What follows is harrowing tale of paranoia in isolation.
One of the reasons The Witch is such a genuinely frightening film is its detailed portrayal of life in 17th century Colonial America. Inspired heavily by contemporary folklore and historical records, all of the actors in the film speak in the archaic form of modern English that would have been common at the time. That attention to detail makes the film all the more terrifying when it takes a turn for the supernatural. Maybe there was something to those famed trials in Salem after all? It’s a stunning debut feature from Eggers, but much of The Witch‘s success is owed to its young cast. Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays middle child Caleb, both turn in tremendous performances. Wonderfully realized, creepy as hell, and subtle to the last, The Witch is one of the must-see films of the year. You’ll never look at a goat the same way again.