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Witch, The/The Witch: A New England Folktale


Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry

Director: Robert Eggars

Horror is the longest surviving popular cinematic genre and so shockers – the good, the bad and Michael Winner’s The Sentinel - creep out of the vault week in and week out.

This week’s all-too-easy-to-overrate offering marks the feature film debut of writer-director Robert Eggers.

On the surface, The Witch, has everything necessary to achieve cult status.

It’s a period piece, which always helps since intellectual (or otherwise) references can be made, if necessary, to Poe, Corman et al.

There are no known stars, which is something that always helps when hailing the work of a previously undiscovered auteur.

And, while it's not a record (or, at least I don’t think it is), the fact that the film has 22 credited producers must add to its critical originality.

However, that said, Eggers is most to be admired for his choice of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke whose bleached, near monochrome imagery adds invaluable atmosphere where little exists in the story or its telling.

We’re in 1630 New England where Puritan English farmer Ralph Ineson is threatened with banishment by his Church. His response? “I cannot be judged by false Christians” and he takes his wife and five children to live in a remote farm near to a bleak forest.

It doesn’t take long for familiar shockfilm tropes to overtake them. The crops fail, the farm animals turn bizarrely malevolent (the unpleasant goat gives one of the most convincing performances) and then their baby vanishes in broad daylight.

And of course, worse is to come.

Eggers won the 2015 Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance. Which, given the familiarity of the material, is an impressive achievement.

Besides Ineson, there's Harvey Scrimshaw as his young, ultimately diabolically possessed son and Anya Taylor-Joy as a teenage daughter, who makes rather more of her role, as does Kate Dickie who, like Ineson, is a refugee from Game of Thrones.

Maybe I have simply seen far too many horror movies to be particularly impressed with Eggers’ film, which failed to thrill or chill me that much.

It’s probably better than it seemed on a first viewing and will doubtless take pride of place in some future Eggers Horror Film Oeuvre retrospective.

But right now hailing The Witch as a low-budget genre masterpiece deftly delivered by a putative auteur, which appears to be the majority critical approach, regrettably simply just doesn’t wash with me.

Alan Frank

USA/UK/Canada/Brazil 2015. UK Distributor: Universal. Colour.
92 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 0, Swearing 1.

Review date: 10 Mar 2016