Robert Eggers’ (the Tell-Tale Heart, 2008) movie is set in the early 1600’s with a new England farming family, headed by the farmer husband and father (Ralph Ineson, Intruders, 2011), a man of strong religious views, are banished, for religious reasons from the community they live in. Needing to build a new life for the family, they settle down a couple of days away from the town and build a new existence for themselves. Life is hard and the family is struggling to make an income in the harsh New England countryside.
As hard as life is, it still goes on. Each member of the family has their position and duties accordingly. And this is where the film works. The movie draws on the folklore of the early New England settlers as they came to terms with the new land, the strange surroundings and the natural fears and superstitions of life at this time.
There is an under lying tension within the family, As the father and mother (Kate Dickie, Red Road 2006) struggle to make a success of their little farmstead, the children also have responsibilities and duties. It is to this background that things start to happen. The two oldest children are of an age where the tensions of hormonal changes are coming into play, most especially for the son, who is becoming aware of himself, so to speak. One day while taking care of the youngest child, the oldest, Thomasin, (Anya Taylor-Joy, Viking Quest, 2015) loses her, but only after taunting the middle daughter, Mercy (about witches and saying she was one). This of course leads to all sorts of implications. The Son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw, Oranges and Sunshine, 2010, a person who could have a bright future ahead of him) is caught in the middle of this and goes to find his little sister, only to make things worse.
The days following the disappearance of the child are tense ones, made all the more tense by the otherwise mundane arguments and struggles of life, which are blown-up in the tensions of the struggles. Eventually things are said and accusations are made, Did Thomasin do something to her little sister, did an animal take her or did the [ubiquitous] with in the woods take her?
As we are drawn in to this struggle, the tension mounts, but then we are introduced to a new element, the witch herself, it turns out there is a witch in the woods, who might actually have taken the child.
Over the next while the presence of the witch is hinted at and explored at first, but then takes a larger part of the story-line, especially with the use of the family mail goat as a familiar, who might actually be the devil. The last act or so of the film is an old fashioned blood and gore horror segment which needless to say culminates in the great showdown. This final denouement (and yes any denouement should be final…) is to me the lessor event. As the tensions in the household mounts and events begin to take their toll, the children are taken over and possessed, with young Caleb especially affected. This scene is one of the better ones of the film.
Now, let’s be clear; this is not the great horror movie people seem to think it is. It could have been, a nerve wrenching thriller playing on the fears and dangers hidden in the dark corners and damp ground, or it could have been an old fashioned horror with our heroes fighting the evil monster etc. Instead it tried to do both and so ultimately failed to succeed to the level it wanted. The acting by the younger actors in particular in first class, even if the character of the mother seemed a little over the top (more the character than the acting).
This is a good film, scoring a safe 3 stars, it could have been much more, if it decided to go one way or the other. Personally I would have liked a movie where we never say the protagonist, but only the fears, reactions and struggles of the family.