Robert Eggers’ feature debut, The VVitch is a supremely confident and impressive piece of work. It knows exactly what it wants to be (is exactly what this viewer was hoping for) and after five years in the making why expect anything less. The research and production value is astounding given its low budget but then, Eggers is an ex-production and costume designer. There is a specificity and authenticity to his film – which recently won the Sutherland Award (Best First Feature) at the London Film Festival – and this verisimilitude lends itself well to the genre. Although obviously belonging to horror, at the heart of The VVitch is a psychological family drama.
It is 1630 and Puritan William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are banished from their settlement seemingly, one would assume, for religious fanaticism. They make a home in New England, on the edge of a wood and begin to tend the land, grow corn, keep goats and even welcome a new addition in the form of baby Samuel. Life can hardly be described as good but they have their God, faith, and each other. That is until the day Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with her baby brother, moments later he disappears and the home descends into hysteria.
The film evokes resounding performances from children and adults alike. Ineson and Dickie are consistently outstanding but the family dynamic they purportedly created in pre-production is effecting and wholly convincing on-screen; making several scenes gut-wrenching as palpable tension rises and the isolated house – seemingly without sin (hubris, deceit, guilt, etc. do not appear to countﾅ) – loses its inhabitants one-by-one. It is a folkloric dream with its attention to detail and there are even references to a red cloak and poisoned apple long before they were recorded in any Grimm fairy tale.
While this is Eggers’ baby, he owes his composer Mark Korvan, his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and editor Louise Ford a debt. Collectively; they earn your fear. Everything is stark, long shots for outdoor scenes, natural lighting wherever possible; close-ups and sharp editing as the audience intrudes upon the family’s dwelling. As a side note, how nobody has approached Ineson before for a horror film is a mystery with that resonating, cacophonous Northern growl he has.
The VVitch conjures on all counts with thematic, visual aesthetic, an actual witch (!) and Black Phillip making up for a slight plot. Non-Brits may struggle with the dialect but it is well worth the skirmish. It is gorgeous, grim and, by ‘eck, bewitching.