Currently causing a stir in the US and out in the UK next month, acclaimed period chiller The Witch is one of the greatest horror movies of this century so far, writes Mark Butler
Normally, on a night, I like to sit on my couch in almost complete darkness while indulging in a little nocturnal channel-surfing, video gaming or YouTube viewing; with only the rectangular glow of my TV screen or laptop illuminating the living room in which I sprawl.
For the past three nights however, the lights in my lounge, hallway and staircase have been well and truly on. Because on Friday evening I watched Robert Eggers’ astonishing and deeply disturbing debut movie The Witch at the Ilkley Film Festival.
Now when the sun has set and I’m left alone downstairs to contend with my imagination, my mind conjures up some very troubling possibilities of what might be lurking just out of sight, and comprehension, in the near darkness.
Thanks to The Witch, I’m forever running to that light-switch.
Trust me: if you’re in any way a fan of the horror genre, or of the sinister and macabre in general, you need to see this film.
I’d argue it’s one of the finest horror flicks of the 21st century to date, and I’m definitely not alone in feeling that way.
But while the critical consensus is strongly in its favour, and praise for Eggers’ spine-tingling folk tale has been widespread, I’ve heard some rather strange assertions about the movie in recent days.
Many cinema-goers in the US, and even some reviewers, have made the claim that The Witch ‘isn’t scary’. Weirdly, this also an opinion I’ve seen being bandied around by fans of the film; couching this merely as an observation, rather than a criticism.
Personally, as the unusually bright, hot bulbs of my home will attest, I completely disagree with this view. And I’m wondering whether I have a very different view on what constitutes ‘scary’ from most.
True, The Witch is not a work filled with jump-scares and shocks. It takes its time to get to the most vividly unsettling moments, and even then – with one notable exception – its pay-offs are outlandish and disorientating rather than visceral and blunt.
But that’s what makes it so nightmarishly effective.
The Witch deals in dread. An ominous, slow-burning sense of creeping terror and foreboding that really gets under your skin and plays feverishly on the mind.
The set-up is creepy enough. In 1600s New England, a puritanical family move to the fringes of a sinister wood – where something very nasty lurks. But it’s in the presentation of the horrors themselves that Eggers’ movie moves into another plain of fear altogether.
The Witch comes armed with a surreal, dream-like sense of sheer evil at certain points, delivered in feverish snap-shots and imagery, chilling to the core. Ranging from disturbing, drawn-out scenes of supernatural malevolence, to intense, obscure bursts of the ‘did I just see that?’ variety, they’re as far away from the usual ‘boo!’ tactics of multiplex slashers as it’s possible to get.
The closest thing I’m reminded of is the work of the excellent, fast-rising British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, whose own horror offerings have struck a similar sense of intangible and uncanny dread.
But whereas A Field In England contains one real stand-out moment of this kind, and Kill List has several, The Witch has around five or six great ones that sear their way into your subconscious.
Those who’ve seen the movie will understood my new-found fear of rabbits, ravens and goats (‘Black Phillip’ is my new cinematic nemesis), but Eggers’ film has more tricks up its sleeve than freaky wildlife.
A fairytale-inspired sequence gives us probably the most unsettling shot of a woodland dwelling you’ll ever see, while a totally head-spinning third act development will doubtless go down in horror movie infamy.
As with all the best horror tales, The Witch bolsters its biggest reveals with an underlying sense of dark, troubling subtext throughout too; from repressed sexuality, to parental hypocrisy, and the way in which pride, paranoia and resentment can tear an otherwise loving family asunder.
It doesn’t hurt that the characters are well-developed and excellently acted too, with Ralph Ineson’s grim patriarch and Anya Taylor-Joy’s remarkable Thomasin particularly compelling to follow.
Special mention must also go to the astonishing music by Mark Korven. Mustering eerie, overwhelming crescendos of off-kilter strings that bring to mind the likes of There Will Be Blood and The Shining, Korven’s score is simply nerve-shredding; lending key scenes so much harrowing atmosphere you feel almost exhausted by your body’s consequent fight or flight response.
To say The Witch is ‘not scary’ is to define scariness merely as an immediate startled reaction, or an ongoing onslaught of build-up followed by pay-off, without accounting for the true, lingering horror that a work like Eggers’ film evokes.
This is a movie that serves up a true sense of evil; that subverts expectations and builds a tangible air of eerie, pervasive dread throughout.
Unconventional? Absolutely. Effective? Undoubtedly. I’m a 25-year veteran of everything the genre’s had to throw at me, and I can tell you that The Witch just might have freaked me out more than any other movie I’ve ever seen.
This horror fanatic thanks all involved for their magnificent efforts, and curses them at the same time, due to my inevitably huge forthcoming electricity bill.
Those lights are staying on in my house for a good while yet.
The Witch will be released in UK cinemas on March 11.