Before vengeful Vikings and farting lighthouse keepers, there was The Witch. Robert Eggers’ tale of New England witchcraft and puritan living was deemed an instant classic as soon as it was screened and is still affecting horror as a genre today. Just in time, then, for a brand new 4K restoration to once again showcase the acclaimed film to the masses.
The Witch – or The VVitch as its title reads – is about an English family in 17th century New England who are banished from their puritan colony and start a farm near decidedly creepy woods. William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) have five children – teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, young boy Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), two young twins Mercy and Jonas, and a baby named Samuel. Amongst the hardship, Samuel one day goes missing, setting off a chain of events that slowly tear the family apart. Mishaps and crop failures are plentiful, and there’s a certain family goat called Black Phillip that seems to want to live mischievously.
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Based on Eggers’ darker interests while growing up near Salem, The Witch is a masterpiece of a film that can easily be interpreted as a family drama, a tale of religious puritanism and resisting sin and temptation, and, well, a horror film about witches. Much of the tension around the film comes from the isolation the family is placed in and the struggles they have to make sure they have enough food while still keeping to their own values.
William is trying to be as pious and strong as possible, and Katherine is straining to be away from civilisation for so long, especially after the loss of Samuel. This subsequently puts more pressure on Thomasin, who does many of the jobs around the farm including looking after the twins, who themselves resent her, which then results in her accidentally convincing them that she herself is a witch. Thomasin is also victimised by Katherine, not least because she is becoming a woman, and Katherine fears she is leading the family away from their ways to something much more sinful.
And then there are the more overt horror elements, which the film isn’t afraid of hiding. Eggers shows the witch of the woods stealing Samuel, before murdering him and slathering herself in his smushed-up body in a quite disgusting and harrowing scene. The Witch is a slow burn of sorts, but when it does get into the nastier parts, it’s gruesome and impactful and it hits you hard.
Louise Ford’s editing is fantastic and the structure of the film helps with the intensity and impending doom of the piece. The picture also looks fantastic, with Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography capturing the grey mood of the location the family is living in, and also the sense of natural light coming from a time when everything was candlelit. Mark Korven’s musical score also has a great impact, with the composer using a lot of similar period instruments to create a score that feels like a living part of the film, a mechanism of dread that constantly lies below the surface, insidiously.
Second Sight has presented The Witch in a new 4K transfer supervised by Eggers himself, and it’s just flawless. The depth of Blaschke’s cinematography here is clear as day, and the subtleties in light and darkness are beautiful. It just looks and sounds amazing, with a powerful 5.1 audio track that gives an immersive experience.
The set is also filled with special features, including two audio commentaries; one by Eggers, and the other by film writer Anna Bogutskaya. There are also new interviews filmed in 2021 with Ineson, Dickie, Taylor-Joy, and Scrimshaw, which give a fantastic window into the creation and making of the film, something that all of the cast talk about as if they were all a family.
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There’s also a short Q&A from a BFI screening of the film and a 2015 featurette, but one of the most interesting extras is the short film Brothers by Eggers, which was made before production of The Witch as a proof of concept that Eggers could make something with children that had a similar feel – kids in the woods – if not something identical. There is also a book included with new writing on the film that was not included for review. It’s a shame there isn’t more from the production side of things, including the music. Just getting the actors and Eggers involved seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. One thing about all the special features is that none of them are subtitled, which is hugely disappointing. I’m not going to mark it against the final score, but this is something that needs improvement.
The Witch is a masterful slice of folk horror and Second Sight has done it justice. I would have liked something deeper from the production side, but the extras provided are very good, and the film itself looks amazing. Essential for anyone’s collection.