GORE IN THE STORE
THE VVITCH *****
Directed by Robert Eggers.
Starring Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw, Julian Richings, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson.
USA 2016 92 mins Certificate: 15
Released by Second Sight on Limited Edition Blu-ray / 4k on 18th April 2022
“The Devil holds fast your eyelids”
The reputation of writer-director Robert Eggers has only grown as a filmmaker in the years since he made his calling-card feature film debut THE VVITCH: the Expressionistic two-hander THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019) and already celebrated, visceral THE NORTHMAN (2022) both make the prospect of his upcoming NOSFERATU revision even more tantalising.
We’ve never forgotten, however, the impact of this utterly beguiling picture, billed onscreen as “A New England Folk Tale” and inspired in part by Eggers’ own experiences of growing up in region, becoming aware of the Puritans who would have walked past his house centuries earlier, a location not far from Salem. It’s not surprising that it took several years to get THE VVITCH financed and made, given its distinctly uncommercial style, based upon 17th century folktales, journals, court records and other findings from extensive research – though the theatrical marketing inevitably contrived to make it look like a more conventional scare-machine.
Astute casting and remarkable performances sell the concept: Ralph Ineson, keen to escape the shadow of the obnoxious (but brilliantly observed) Finch from BBC’s THE OFFICE, is intensely credible as the devout Christian man forced to abandon his plantation and take refuge with his family at a cottage on the edge of the forest. Kate Dickie essays the kind of wife / mother character rarely afforded such depth or range in period horror. The oldest daughter (another striking debut, in her late teens, Anya Taylor-Joy) is on the cusp of womanhood, while (the astonishing) Harvey Scrimshaw is the pubescent son lured in by a provocative red-cloaked “witch”. The relatable concerns of financial desperation and sexual awakening dovetail with a sense of encroaching evil, of curses and possession…or maybe just paranoia.
Enhanced considerably by the discordant strings, shrieks and vocal glissandos of Mark Korven’s uniquely unsettling score, it’s one of the most ravishing-looking horror films of recent years (enhanced still further by the new 4K UHD presentation), with autumnal visuals somewhere between Bergman, Poe and Little Red Riding Hood. Punctuated by fairy tale imagery and scrupulously avoiding the cliches and jump scares that dominate the Hollywood Horror assembly line product, it favours long takes and deliberate pacing – but also builds to scenes of genuine alarm. Boldly working in a remote location with animals and kids of all ages, Eggers gets extraordinary performances from his (largely inexperienced) cast.
Crucially, like so many of the outstanding American horror films of the modern era, THE VVITCH is an impactful drama even without the supernatural overtones: a painful, riveting document of a vulnerable family succumbing to the period, its dangers and terrors, and inexorably breaking down.
Second Sight’s impressively loaded disc carries over an archival Eggers track but adds a range of insightful featurettes that are well worth your time. Eggers’ newly shot interview recalls the influences (including Ken Loach) and tough production, while he considers it has been overrated. Taylor-Joy is self-deprecating and charming as she fondly recalls the experience and how, as the first script she ever read, it became a life and career changer. Ineson – reunited for THE NORTHMAN – praises Eggers’ attention to detail while noting the director’s belief that his OFFICE character shared notable traits with THE VVITCH’s tormented father/husband. Elsewhere, Dickie and Scrimshaw offer their own fascinating reflections, and you get a BFI London Film Festival Q&A with key players along with Eggers’ Cain & Abel-inspired, evocative 2015 short BROTHERS.