THE VVITCH ***** USA / UK / Canada 2015 Dir: Robert Eggers. 92 mins
With his big-budget, visceral epic THE NORTHMAN marking his most ambitious work to date, writer-director Robert Eggers continues to earn acclaim as one of the major filmmakers of our time – and a tantalising reworking of NOSFERATU is also in the pipeline. His earlier, more contained pictures confirmed a vast talent on the rise: before the hilarious / harrowing, Expressionistic two-hander THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019), he enjoyed a rapturous reception to feature debut THE VVITCH.
Billed onscreen as “A New England Folk Tale” and inspired by 17th century folktales, journals, court records and other elements of Eggers’ extensive research, it unfolds equally as an impactful psychological piece and chilling horror picture: a distressing, raw account of a vulnerable family succumbing to typical threats of the period, and fracturing before our very eyes. The discordant strings, shrieks and vocal glissandos of Mark Korven’s distinctive, experimental score and the autumnal visuals (equal parts Poe, Little Red Riding Hood and Bergman) make it look and feel like a subversive fairy tale horror film – refreshingly devoid of the jump scares and cheap shots that dominate so much of Hollywood’s assembly line genre product.
The performances are authentic, selling the most outlandish detours of the narrative: best known as the obnoxious Finch from the BBC’s THE OFFICE, Ralph Ineson is intense as the devout Christian man forced to abandon his plantation and take refuge with his family at a cottage on the edge of an apparently accursed forest. Kate Dickie portrays (heartbreakingly) the kind of wife / mother figure rarely afforded depth or range in period horror. The oldest daughter – played, in her film debut, by the always great Anya Taylor-Joy – is on the cusp of womanhood while Harvey Scrimshaw is astonishingly good as the pubescent son lured in by a seductive red-cloaked “witch”. The relatable concerns of financial desperation and sexual awakening dovetail with a sense of encroaching evil via scenes of physical and mental decline that could be possession…or something just as disturbing.
Boldly working in a remote location with animals, kids of all ages and contemporary dialect, Eggers ekes extraordinary performances from his small cast and, in favouring long takes and deliberate pacing, builds to moments of genuine alarm. Increasingly, THE VVITCH looks like one of the standout horror films of the 21st century.
Review by Steven West