Nowadays, the vast majority of horror films are so mind-numbingly repetitive that you need only look at the trailer in order to make an educated guess on what you can expect – bad writing, worse acting, and cheap gore thrills, sometimes rationalised with the phony “found footage” premise. While there are only a few exceptions to the rule, thankfully this film sets a very good example, with its eerie reminiscence of old folklore, and its skillful utilising of familiar concepts of witchcraft. The result is a very engaging, atmospheric, and certainly a very intelligent horror film that is leagues above its immediate peers, none of which can hope to match the level of mystery conveyed here.
Subtitled “A New-England Folktale” and set in the year 1630, the film’s story follows a family of devout Puritan Christians in New England, who are banished from their plantation and live in exile in a remote plot of land near a vast and ominous forest. Whilst they are living there, a series of disturbing events begin to befall the family, including the livestock becoming aggressive and the deaths of some of the children. Throughout the film, the family’s teenage daughter Thomasin is accused of witchcraft, a charge she adamantly denies, but one thing is absolutely certain. Amidst the disturbing series of events, the family is torn about by paranoia, as they find their faith, love and loyalty tested.
What stands out right away is incredible amount of realism. The film is essentially based on real life accounts of witchcraft at the time, along with varying folktales. Indeed, it’s as if the producers actually did the research, and made wrote the film in a manner so as to suit the context of the film’s setting. Rather than depicting the family as brainless zealots, the film shows them in a more nuanced light. On the one hand, the characters as depicted as honest Christians responding to what they would have thought was witchcraft in the only way they knew how (back in the 17th century, the way people treated witches would have been considered rational), but on the other hand, the film depicts the way in which this concern inevitably manifests, and in that regard, the film paints a realistic, objective picture of its subject matter, and the tale it tells is very engaging.
The characters certainly echo this realistic direction, with the dialogue closely matching the kind of scripture-quoting puritans that would have have reacted in the way that they do in this film. The acting in general is very much worthy of a standing ovation, with Ralph Ineson’s performance as the well-meaning but easily irritated head of the household. The characters were very convincing throughout, and I feel that the actors genuinely did a good job of conveying the horror that witchcraft might have represented to the characters living in the time the film was set.
The film also conveys the mood of gloomy, hopeless paranoia through its visuals. Drab, dreary colours dominate the film, and this is as much to do with realism as it is to do with creating a visually compelling display that befitted the film’s atmosphere of silent terror. The forest itself (a location near Kiosk, Ontario) makes for a stunning backdrop for the film, perfectly embodying the unknown, and the dangers that lurk within. I’m half-tempted to call this a gothic film, but that would be jumping the gun a little. The film’s brand of horror does not rely on cheap, immediate visual scares, but rather on a subtle, slowly building atmosphere of madness that eventually reaches its chilling climax.
Overall, if you’re getting tired of the glut of virtually identical horror films swamping the market, you might want to consider this film, which has real substance and character compared to its immediate peers. Considering this is the debut for Robert Eggers, I have high hopes that he will continue making films, especially considering that he wants to write and direct a remake of Nosferatu. Given how well this film did, I would certainly look forward to that planned Nosferatu remake.
- Score: 81%
- Grade: B