Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) is a modern gothic horror masterpiece. The film is a suspenseful and claustrophobic supernatural horror that relies on an unsettling atmosphere over the cheap scares and gore tactics that the genre has now become associated with. Eggers, as writer and director, creates an authentic image of an archetypal 17th century puritan family in new England, tested by the paranoia and hysteria brought about by religious fundamentalism in the face of dark and difficult circumstance. Horror is offered not only through the fear of the supernatural but also of accusation culture and distrust in the family home.
Although having a run time of only 93 minutes the film has a measured slow-burning pace, building up tension and suspense, while not leaving all the action for the third act. In an interview for the Guardian Egger’s stated that:
“real horror is not about jump scares, that can be fun for a moment, but I’m more interested at looking at what is dark in humanity and what is actually horrific. Which is not what we necessarily think of the genre these days.”
The Witch stands true to Eggers’ definition of ‘real horror’. There is not the excessive pageantry and spectacle that the genre is so often associated with, but instead an offering a brooding examination of anxieties. Eggers uses the supernatural as a catalyst to expose the real darkness.
Eggers characters respond to suspicious events and scenes of horror in a believable manner. The scenarios that lead to the characters’ demises are subject to their flaws, which themselves are crucial to the story. They are not simply killed off one by one for violent spectacle. The reliance on natural lighting, and researched period costume design and dialogue give the film an intensely real feeling, making it as effective as a period drama (based on folk law) as it is a horror.
The Witch’s lonely archaic setting of a haunted New England farm, surrounded by an ominous woodland, is captured beautifully through the film’s 1.66:1 ratio and deprived colouration. The film’s cold colouring gives it a bleak, desolate feel, complete with creeping slider shots and eerie lingering long takes. Eggers inserts gore and violence sparingly while still creating truly nightmarish images. The film’s imagery feels like Francisco de Goya’s black paintings coming to life, with dramatic lighting techniques that play with strong contrast and shadows.
The film’s writing has an impeccable economy that is able to maintain tension, suspicion and intrigue while also consistently giving away vital information. Through playing upon your expectation Eggers leaves you unknowing of what information to believe or distrust until it is too late.