Directed and written by Robert Eggers. Produced by Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, and Jay Van Hoy. Release date: February 19, 2016.
Like a breath of fresh air in a genre populated primarily by jump startles and gore, here comes The VVitch, an arthouse horror movie that gets by on intelligence, atmosphere, and period authenticity. It’s a refreshing movie to watch, as it’s the type of wide-release horror movie we only get about once a year. Last year, it was It Follows. This year, we’ve got The VVitch.
Set almost exclusively on a New England farm in the 17th century, The VVitch follows a family just trying to make do with what life has thrown its way. After being kicked out of a plantation, the only way to survive was to find a spot of land and try to grow some crops. It hasn’t worked out perfectly – the crops have faltered – but they’re getting by. That is, until the youngest child, a baby named Samuel, disappears right underneath the nose of the oldest, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). This sets off a string of increasingly upsetting occurrences. The audience knows that a witch has taken Samuel; the film does not try to hide this from us, and it even shows her taking him and then using his blood as a shower. We’re in the know. The family, meanwhile, suspects it was a wolf. But maybe, deep down, they know the truth.
Based on the first few minutes of The VVitch, one might guess that the film will follow around the family as the witch of the forest pulls pranks like a poltergeist while slowly picking off the members of the family one by one. And, well, that does happen – to an extent. People do die, and the witch is often to blame, but this is a slow burn that is much more about familial conflict and paranoia than it is about a bloodthirsty witch.
For that reason, horror hounds may find themselves disappointed by what The VVitch has to offer. Until the final 30 minutes, there aren’t even any attempts at scaring the audience. It’s all build-up, setting the atmosphere, showing us shots that should lead to a jump startle, but then don’t, and letting us understand what this family is like. Then the final 30 minutes happen, all that building finally pays off, and it’s glorious.
Atmosphere oozes out of The VVitch, and it’s for that reason that much of the horror even works. The long takes of the ever-ominous forest, the wonderfully unnerving score, and an overbearing sense of foreboding fill the film. Its attention to period detail is astonishing. You feel transported back in time. From the way that this farm has been created, to the fantastic costume work, all the way down to the dialogue – filled with more “thees” or “thous” than one should dare to count – you feel immersed by The VVitch, as it feels so real and authentic, and you become more chilled to the bone with every scene as a result.
More creepy than outright scary, The VVitch succeeds based on its desire to soak us in atmosphere and ideas rather than jump startles or blood – although we get small tastes of both of those, too.
The real genius, though, comes from the way that it mixes in its themes – those of family relationships, the perils of puritan thinking, isolation – with subtlety and taste, while also having them amplify, not get in the way, of the film’s horror. It takes a lot of skill and confidence to concoct a film like The VVitch, and first-time feature writer-director Robert Eggers seems to do it effortlessly. This is a startlingly intelligent movie.
If you’re here just for scary stuff, though, you might leave disappointed, if only because it’s more unsettling, tense, and creepy than out-and-out “scary.” Any scene involving the witch will make your skin crawl, a goat named Black Phillip will immediately make your list of “scariest animals,” and there are a few scenes in the last half hour that I don’t want to spoil, but suffice to say I’ll be remembering them for a long while. While trying to sleep. In the middle of the night. The horror.
Anya Taylor-Joy is a revelation in the leading role, a find out of relative nowhere who is destined to be a big star. All of the roles in the film are challenging ones – the dialogue only vaguely resembles modern English, there are a lot of long takes which require perfection, and some of the things they have to do are downright weird. Taylor-Joy centers the film as a woman going through puberty, and never quite seeming like she fits in with, well, everyone. As her parents, Game of Thrones alumni Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie are fantastic. The biggest surprise probably comes from Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb, the second oldest, around whom one of the film’s biggest and most pivotal scenes hinges – and he nails it. The two younger kids are played by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson, and while they’re superior to most movie kids, The VVitch is better when they’re not on-screen.
More creepy than outright scary, The VVitch succeeds based on its desire to soak us in atmosphere and ideas rather than jump startles or blood – although we get small tastes of both of those, too. Thanks to a great cast and a penchant for period authenticity, the film immerses us to the point that we feel like a member of the family – and then proceeds to ruin it all. It’s a slow burn, and if you are expecting a splatterfest you’ll leave disappointed, but this is a rare breed of horror movie, and one that I’m so very happy we got. The VVitch is the antithesis of the average modern horror movie.
Bottom Line: A creepy movie about a puritan family surviving on a farm in 17th century New England – and also there’s a witch – The VVitch is a great success.
Recommendation: See The VVitch, but don’t be expecting a fast-paced, gore-filled, jump startle-filled film. It’s very much not that.[rating=4]