Set in New England during the middle of the Puritan migration The VVitch charts one family’s plunge into a maelstrom of mistrust and religious fervor. Distanced from their homeland and further set adrift by their community the only things growing on their isolated farmstead are suspicion and paranoia.
God-fearing parents William and Katherine become gripped with anguish as their lives and those of their extensive brood slide into a pit of chaos. Is it impending famine and heart breaking loss that is tearing the family unit to shreds or is it evidence of a deadly incline towards a relentlessly seductive and infernal evil ?
Former production designer Robert Eggers writes and directs this killer low budget art house flick and the devil is definitely in the detail. The level of authenticity is obsessional and provides a fleckless canvas on which to smear this disturbing yarn of malevolent discord.
Everything from the dialogue to the architecture and all that falls in-between is flawlessly depicted. Even the films title card is written in a period appropriate font.
The meticulously crafted mise-en-scène is beautifully captured by the fine eye of Jarin Blaschke. Using mostly natural light and a washed out palette there are times the film looks so gorgeous it appears to be channeling the Dutch Golden Age of painting.
It’s just as well The VVitch possesses such a distinct and powerful visual signature because the score is exceptionally atmospheric and could have overwhelmed.
Composer Mark Korven (Cube) uses period instruments such as the nyckelharpa and the hurdy-gurdy interlaced with porous vocals from The Element Choir to create an intimidating soundscape of anxious trepidation.
Attention to detail like this regarding the aural fabric of 1630’s New England is wholly typical of this astonishing movie where all involved seem to be operating at the apogee of their profession not least the multifarious cast.
Every performance is nuanced and committed from Game of Thrones alumni Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie as the grief stricken parents to the exceptional child cast that handle the deeply challenging material with disconcerting relish.
Harvey Scrimshaw is particularly likable as young Caleb and excels not least in a pivotal scene that ranks right up there with the most distressing in recent horror movie memory.
Arguably the focal point of the piece is eldest daughter Thomasin played by Anya Taylor Joy and whilst the lens is determined to conduct a love affair with her she never loses sight of the range needed to secure her characters credibility against her own consummation as an actress in what is clearly a break-out role.
It seems ridiculous to state that everyone in the film is upstaged by an animal but Charlie the goat who plays the insidious Black Phillip does just that. A well documented nightmare on set that Ralph Ineson told me left him with – “Detached rib tendon, bruising to fingers, forearms and pride..“- he is a new icon in anthropomorphic terror that even has his own twitter account.
All this talk of unwavering authenticity may makes the The VVitch sound like a dull bludgeoning at the hands of plebeian history but the opposite is in fact true. The fetish for detail allows for a fascinating and immersive exploration of the complex ideals that led to a huge number of people relocating thousands of miles in the quest to protect their belief system.
There is subtlety supreme at work here. A seemingly bromidic sub-plot involving a missing silver cup is actually a finely pitched curve-ball aimed at the concept of theft as a gateway drug to satanism.
Most subtle of all is the way the movie approaches the core Puritanical belief that a person becomes a witch not upon reception of their demonic powers but the moment they renounce their Godly faith. The richness with which this concept is anatomised through lurid possessions and self castigation is so penetrative and intuitive in its humanisation that ultimately we witness something truly moving.
As illustrated by its sharp second week drop off at the U.S. box-office and its dire opening night Cinemascore grade of C- The VVitch is clearly not everyone’s cup of curdled milk. A large contingent of cinema-goers have mauled it for its measured and gradual build with many expressing the opinion they had been duped into the multiplex on false pretenses.
Other detractors have questioned if it is a horror film at all. A recrimination so unfathomable that if true would see classics such as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and Hour of the Wolf cast out from the fright flick fold. It is both incredulous and ironic that a horror movie that has the guts to operate outside the cookie-cutter margins of the mainstream is rejected by the very people it prowls to gratify.
The irony intensifies further considering the folkways and superstitions brought to the screen so faithfully and expertly here are arguably the prototypal genetic building blocks of all horror movies.
If you are a fright fan fueled solely by franchises or require oceans of gore to keep your horror boat afloat then give The VVitch a wide birth as this relatively bloodless yet inwardly disorienting oddity does not seek to deliver conventional jump scares nor hackneyed cliches.
However if you are an aficionado of intellectually challenging independent horror cinema, or indeed authentic yet unpretentious film making in general, you will lap up this humble masterpiece with all the gusto of a famished familiar feasting on a crones teat.
The VVitch is a rare paragon in a jaded, sequel stagnant genre that represents a new benchmark in both psychological horror and debut film-making.
At its very best The VVitch borders on the Shakespearean in its cultivated scrutiny of tragedy, pathos and the politics of fear.
Horror, Family Drama, Folklore| USA, 2015 | Universal Pictures International |11th March 2016 (UK) | Dir. Robert Eggers| Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw