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Blu-ray Review: The Witch
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The Witch

The Witch
Blu-ray | DVD
Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated R | 92 Minutes
Release Date: May 17, 2016

Filmed on a low budget at locations in rural Ontario, Canada, the restrained chills and atmospheric tension of the film festival sensation, The Witch (or The VVitch: A New-England Folktale, as it was originally titled) made a mighty impression on critics and audiences willing to embrace a more cerebral form of modern horror. Now, this terrifying tale of a despairing evil that overcomes a devout Christian family trying to forge their survival off of an unforgiving land comes home to Blu-ray, where chances are it will gain an even larger following.

The Witch

“Born in lust, turn to dust. Born in sin, come on in.” – Stephen King, Storm of the Century

Having been exiled from their Puritanical colony in mid-17th century New England for the crime of “prideful conceit,” a family led by father William (Ralph Ineson, The Office) and mother Katherine (Kate Dickie, Game of Thrones) make a new home for themselves in an isolated wilderness. Soon after, the pregnant Katherine gives birth to her fifth child, Samuel, and one day while being entertained by his oldest sibling Thomasin (newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy), the baby vanishes without a trace. Though the family accepts the possibility that Samuel was taken by a wolf, Katherine begins to harbor suspicions of the responsible Thomasin.

To make matters even worse, their crops are being ruined and William and his eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) are forced to venture into the woods to hunt for food lest the entire family starve during the winter. Thomasin’s sister Mercy (Ellie Grainger) accuses her of being “the Witch of the Wood,” apparently as teasing, but unbeknownst to the family there is a witch who lurks in the surrounding forest and she has every intention of corrupting this clan of devout Christians and putting their faith in both the Lord and each other to the test – especially young Thomasin, who is forced to stand alone as her loved ones, consumed by their own fear and hypocrisy, start to turn against her.

The Witch

It might be fun to get a little scare every once in a while, but only true horror has the power to worm its way into your soul and establish a cozy nest in the depths of your subconscious. Whether you are wide awake or sound asleep, you cannot shake its impact. The scariest things imaginable are those we can’t always see, but we know are out there, hiding in the shadows and behind our eyes. It is quite rare when a film comes along that contains the ability to rattle your nerves and haunt your dreams; The Witch, the feature directorial debut of former costume and production designer Robert Eggers, is just such a film.

Eggers, who also wrote the screenplay, takes his time establishing an ominous and oppressive atmosphere where the dread begins to gradually mount from the moment the film begins. The titular creature is revealed to us early in the first act, but only by the light of a hellish flame as she goes about her depraved duties. It is more than enough to have us fearing for the lives of the Christian family at the center of the story’s nightmarish progression of events. Eggers values the importance of having three-dimensional characters we in the audience can relate to despite having values and traditions that might appear alien and unsettling to the vast majority of those watching.

There is no clear hero in The Witch, but it is actually better to have the film center on flawed individuals struggling against a malevolent force they could never hope to understand and having their own repressed fears and prejudices methodically tunnel their way into the light. This way we are constantly uncertain who will survive and how they will be affected by what they have just experienced. The dialogue is heavy with Biblical references and the use of Shakespearean English, but Eggers’ deft writing and direction of a solid cast ensure that when spoken it feels just as natural as the sparse sets and wintry cinematography.

The Witch

Casting is key to the success of this film and Eggers did his feature debut many favors by installing Anya Taylor-Joy in the central role of Thomasin, the headstrong yet vulnerable teenager who is forced to grow up even faster than before as her beloved family falls to pieces before her very eyes. She is completely believable as Thomasin and never relies on artificial emotion to convince us of the character’s inner torment and flirtation with the darker side of human nature. Taylor-Joy is the cast’s secret weapon and ultimate stand-out and she’s destined for bigger things.

I was equally impressed by the understated performance from Roger Ineson as the weary and overwhelmed family patriarch William and quite surprised when I recognized him as David Brent’s loutish best mate Chris Finch from the original BBC version of The Office. Ineson’s work here is superb as he makes William’s struggle to keep his family safe and together in the face of mysterious circumstances honest and full of conviction. Kate Dickie is compelling as the mother quick to turn on her own flesh and blood, and Harvey Scrimshaw makes every moment of his big scene, one of the film’s most distressing moments, count.

The Witch runs a lean 93 minutes and never falls prey to unnecessary dramatic beats and a lagging pace at any time. Eggers keeps the focus tight on the family’s escalating problems and how they cause each member of the religious clan to slowly unravel and succumb to madness and murder. He conjures up images both beautiful and dismaying and uses his stripped-down narrative to comment on how the greatest evil is often right in front of our face and living among us rather than creeping up on us from the bottomless pit of darkness that are the shadows in the night.

In closing, after you spend some time in the company of the family’s trusted goat Black Phillip, you probably won’t feel comfortable feeding a goat ever again.

The Witch

Video

The Witch arrives on Blu-ray from Lionsgate with an eye-catching 1080p high-definition transfer framed in the film’s original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shot the film in 2K resolution using Arri Alexa digital cameras but the visual presentation sports an authentic and natural grain structure that gives every shot a richly filmic texture. The muted color palette is pleasingly autumnal and gorgeous to behold. A first-rate effort overall.

Audio

Lionsgate has supplemented the astounding picture with a strong and vibrant English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that preserves the film’s deeply discordant sound design and the disturbing original music score composed by Mark Korven (Cube) with stunning depth and clarity across all channels. Dialogue comes through perfectly audible even when it is spoken in hushed tones, while audio distortion is nowhere to be found. English and Spanish subtitles have also been included.

Special Features

Writer/director Eggers’ enthusiastic solo audio commentary provides a handy tutorial on making an ambitious yet low-key horror film for a mere fraction of the average studio feature. The young filmmaker is full of energy and insight as he discusses the many creative and technical challenges he had to overcome during the production of his directorial debut. This is a much more worthwhile extra than “The Witch: A Primal Folktale” (8 minutes), a skimpy behind-the-scenes featurette that only scratches the surface of making this particular genre film but offers up enough soundbites and on-set footage to engage your interest for a few minutes.

“Salem Panel Q&A with Cast and Crew” (28 minutes) makes for a more informative watch, but is misleadingly titled since only Eggers and actress Taylor-Joy represent the actual cast and crew on the panel. Authors Brunonia Barry and Richard Trask are also on hand to offer their considerable expertise on the subjects of the Salem Witch Trials and witchcraft in general and how they inspired Eggers’ narrative. The final supplement relating to the film is a short gallery consisting of costume, character, and set design sketches and a few photos of the family’s farm in various stages of construction.

Wrapping up the selection is a reel of trailers for other titles either already available from Lionsgate or coming soon: Green Room, The Adderall Diaries, Mojave, Tusk, and Ex Machina. These previews can be accessed from the Special Features menu at any time, but will also play automatically after you load the Blu-ray disc. A Digital HD copy has also been provided.

Last Words

Witchcraft has not been this terrifying since that trio of enterprising young filmmakers ventured into the woods of Burkittsville in search of a legend and were never seen again. Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a haunting and compelling experience in cinematic horror that also works brilliantly as a provocative exploration of the limits of faith and the fragility of family in the face of a hostility that cannot be reasoned with or explained. The Lionsgate Blu-ray release spotlights one of the best films of 2016 in a stunning high-definition transfer with immersive sound and some meaty supplemental material to heighten your appreciation of Eggers’ chilling little classic in the making.

Trailer

Cover Art

The Witch

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