Robert Eggers’ horror darling from last year’s Sundance Film Festival begins with an unassuming title card in an archaic script: The VVitch – A New-England Folktale. The simplicity of this title belies the overwhelming terror that will unfold over the brisk 90 minute runtime of the film, yet also masterfully portends the ultimate conclusion. Through a studied accumulation of primary source materials, astounding performances from actors young, old, and animal, and a keen directorial eye, Eggers has reached back into yesteryear and delivered a bone-chilling campfire story in the guise of a period piece. Any audience with the patience – and courage – to indulge in his fantasy will be justly rewarded.
The VVitch tells the story of an English family which has recently settled in a New England plantation in the early 17thcentury (and don’t worry – we’ll get to why Eggers decided to spell “witch” with two v’s). The family comprises the father William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and the twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). The opening sequence of the film finds the family at a tribunal, being judged as sinners by the local governor. William claims that it is everyone else who follows God incorrectly, and proudly accepts his banishment. The family leave the plantation and set up a new homestead a few miles away. William’s confidence and pride are patent as he seeks a new life for his family.
Now is as good a time as any to remark on the music and sound mixing of The VVitch, which is absurd. In my trailer review, I remarked that there are choral elements quite reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Exorcist. Well, now that I actually have seen the film, I can double-down on that observation, because these elements are very forward in the sound mixing, and often completely dominate the audio tracks. It is almost oppressive, and provides portent for the trouble that is wading just out of sight.
Some months later, the family’s farm is mostly set up, and the instigating incident occurs to set our horrible tumble from grace. Thomasin plays peek-a-boo with the newest addition to the family, Samuel. The camera alternates between the gaze of the child and that of Thomasin as they enjoy their lark, with brisk cuts between the two vantages. Then, we linger on Thomasin’s face for what seems like an eternity as horror dawns across it. Switching to her viewpoint, Samuel’s blanket is empty.
Suffice to say, our titular character has made off with the babe, and we all know what witches do with newborns. Eggers leaves little doubt as to the extent of the devilish machinations, yet thankfully shows little. Days later, William explains to Caleb that even if the wolf which took Samuel left him alive, he would have starved or frozen by now, so the search is to be called off. Meanwhile, Katherine is despondent, and Thomasin shoulders the unspoken blame, even while teasing the young twins that she was the witch that took Samuel.
And yet, like all stifled frustrations, Katherine’s begin to show in her treatment of her eldest daughter. Small transgressions are overblown, and anything that displeases Katherine is attributed in some way to Thomasin. For example, as the crops are failing William takes Caleb out into the woods to check some traps for game, yet tells him to keep this from his mother. Further, William was forced to sell Katherine’s silver cup for supplies, and has not told her. Caleb lies for his father, who remains silent, and claims they were out picking apples. When the subject of the cup comes up, both are silent, and the blame for its loss falls to Thomasin for being negligent.
Hence we arrive at a major thematic element of The VVitch: the dissolution of a family set against itself. Katherine is set against Thomasin, who is set against the twins (who are always teasing her and being disobedient). William struggles to provide for his family, and allows his son to lie for him and his daughter to bear the brunt of his wife’s ire.
These elements of the plot, with the family members struggling to handle the hardship of losing one of their own, lend the film a dramatic texture which is often missing from the horror genre. It may in fact be correct to think of The VVitch as a period drama first and a horror film second. But, I believe that the power of the film is drawn largely from the realness of the period dramatic elements. The costuming is astounding, the olde English accents well-delivered, and the performances impeccable. In a film with four young actors, three of them children, there is not a single misstep. What’s more, there are significant “parts” played by animals in this film, and each one of those performances also perfectly captures the relevant emotion for the scene. Together, this serves to transport the viewer back some four hundred years into a wholly different world from ours. And it is in that world that the story we are seeing becomes a real possibility.
(Okay, so far I have spoiled a little, but nothing that would piss any reasonable person off. From here on, I am pulling no punches. If you want to remain unspoiled, bookmark this page and come back after you see the movie. Or, just close the tab on your browser and carry on with your life. I’m not the boss of you).
Obviously, there is a significant satanic presence in The VVitch. This is never hidden from the audience, though only fleeting glances are given at the evil in the woods throughout the film. As the evil creeps further into the family and consumes Caleb, the twins begin accusing Thomasin of witchcraft. She insists that she was only teasing with them, but then accuses them of convoking with Black Phillip, the black goat on the farm. Elements of The Crucible begin to creep into this film, and I started to worry that Thomasin would be carted off and judged by a tribunal at the plantation. Instead, William locks the three of them (Thomasin and the twins) in the barn and tends to burying Caleb. That evening, visions of her dead sons enthrall Katherine, delivered by a raven. William prays for God to absolve him of his sinful pride. And the witch descends upon the farm.
The twins are abducted. The livestock all killed, besides Black Phillip. William, accusing Thomasin of being responsible for all of this, is gored by the black ram. Then, even Katherine succumbs to the evil surrounding all of them and tries to strangle her own daughter, but Thomasin manages to fight her off. Her family in shambles, Thomasin convenes with Black Phillip in the barn, and the ram speaks to her. He tells her to sign her name in his book, and he will give her great wealth and power. As she wanders after him in the woods, she comes upon a gathering of naked witches, dancing and shrieking around a blazing bonfire. The witches, along with Thomasin, slowly levitate off the ground and ascend to the blackness of the night sky.
At the end, it was all real. The witch, the devil, the evil – all of it. Of course, we knew this from the opening title card. The VVitch – A New-England Folktale describes the kind of story that would be told at this time in history, and does so in an eminently stylized way. Hence “VVitch” instead of “Witch” – though the letter “w” was in use at the time, the more archaic version assists us in seeing that the story Eggers is telling uniquely belongs to this time period. The rest of the period piece panache only cements what we have been told from the opening title. The closing credits, which state that much of the story came from journals and other primary documents of the time, further supports this interpretation. Hence, while we know with our 21st century minds that the true nature of witchcraft is contained within something like The Crucible, the people of this time do not. For them, it is all real. Stray too far from God and descend into the domain of Satan, and the power of evil will consume you and your entire family.
In The VVitch, Robert Eggers has fashioned the period piece drama into a lens for looking at an old way of thinking, of telling stories. This lens magnifies the horror one would feel in a world where babies are sacrificed by brides of Satan, families crumble under evil spells, and good women are bewitched. It is a overwhelming achievement the equal of classical masterpieces of the genre. It also establishes Eggers as yet another brilliant mind working on the outskirts of the Hollywood system in genre films. After The VVitch, we will agonize over waiting for his next effort with baited breath – if we ever catch it again.