Director: Robert Eggers
Genre: Horror | Mystery
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Release Date: February 19, 2016
I will begin this review by repeating what Stephen King said in one of his tweets – This film scared the hell out of me. The number of terrifying scenes and heartbreaking sequences throughout the film stay with you long after you leave the cinema. We have all heard stories of people who to through unspeakable events together and, as a result of fear, paranoia, and ignorance, start turning on each other with increasingly terrifying consequences. This is such a story. As a side note, the events in this film take place in the early 1630s, approximately 60 years before the infamous Salem Witch Trials. What this means is that, while this film is clearly referenced as “A New England Folktale”, some of the story elements might be grounded in actual events.
William and Katherine are a young couple with 5 children – newborn Samuel, twins Jonas and Mercy, Caleb, and Thomasin, the eldest daughter, who is on the verge of entering the uncertain and confusing world of puberty. William is a religious zealot living in Puritan New England, who has been banished from his colony for his extreme religious views. (Who knew someone could be too religious even for Puritans?) In the opening scene of the film he is standing (with his family) in front of what seems like a council or tribunal, with men wearing big hats looking sternly upon them, and he is directly addressed and told that if he won’t change his ways (exactly what ways, we are not told), he will be exiled from the colony with this family. He answers that he will gladly go and life his life the way he believes God intended for humanity. And so begins our family’s tortuous journey through faith, life, and misery.
Thomasin is the most troubled character in the story because she can sense from early on that something is just not right with this entire situation. As soon as they arrive at their new chosen location, at the edge of a dark and menacing forest, we are thrust into an ominous world. Everything seems “off”. In what could have been a beautiful patch of country, we immediately feel a sense of dread, like someone (or something) is watching us. At the same time, we feel that we are there with this family and going through all these events and emotions along with them.
When newborn Samuel disappears in one of the early scenes, fear turns to grief, then to fear, then to mistrust. Thomasin is (subtly at first, directly later on) blamed for this by her mother, who punishes her by doubling her chores and treating her with contempt. William seems powerless to stop his wife’s mounting fears and paranoia. When their crops start failing, and the possibility of them starving becomes very real, William decides to venture out to the woods (which had been forbidden to everyone in the family) to hunt for food. Jonas and Mercy are too young to understand what their life is becoming, and young Caleb just wants to help and please his father. Thomasin is expected to comfort her siblings through these situations but she herself is confused and increasingly feels all of this is her fault.
Increasingly, the family turns against one another with devastating consequences. Perhaps they really are cursed, perhaps they’re really being punished by God, perhaps there really is a witch in the woods (it’s always been fascinating to me how everything that went wrong during that time was always blamed on “a witch”), or perhaps they’re just slowly losing their minds due to hardship and starvation. In any case, we are always drawn in and feeling like we’re with the family in their struggle. The last 30 minutes or so brings everything together in a horrifying, startling conclusion.
This is not a morality tale, nor is it a condemnation of William the zealout father or Kate the paranoid mother or even Thomasin the confused teenager (though it could be any or all of those), but a tale of a family’s descent into hell at the edge of the woods in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere else to go. It could happen to anyone. It could happen to us.
NOTE: This film was directly endorsed by the Church of Satan, which called it a “transformative satanic experience”. They’re even touring 4 cities showing the film, followed by “satanic rituals”. I know this fact will scare some people off enough to skip this film, but if you’re a true horror fan, don’t let that stop you. This is a must-see and a future classic of this genre.