Somehow, it’s already been seven years since Robert Eggers directorial feature debut The Witch screened in the UK, at the BFI London Film Festival, and it instantly made an impact with is unique take on horror: a slow-burning, psychological chiller that crept in from the woods without anyone noticing.
The Witch (A New England Folktale), also gave Anya Taylor-Joy to the world and she hasn’t looked back, and now it’s offered up in this impressive Limited Edition 4K UHD/Blu-ray, packed with bonus features, courtesy of Second Sight Films.
Setting us up in New England, 1630, and using original source material from old folklore and court tales, we focus on a farming family with William (Ralph Ineson), threatened to be expelled by the church, leaves their colonial plantation and sets up home near a creepy, remote woods with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and the twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), but things don’t get any better.
With Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, alongside Mark Korven’s almost-screeching (in an effective way) compositions, they create a tight tension but it’s not just of fear, it’s anticipation of the unknown – to reflect how the family feel. Our eyeline is often dragged off towards the woods, you sense the strange, unsettling build of nothingness – which is highlighted further when the baby disappears momentarily after an innocent game of peekaboo, and all we see is the grass and trees move, as if an invisible wind has brushed through, but just in one specific spot. It’s very subtle, but evident.
As things start going wrong on the farm, with animals attacking them at random, and crops failing, Thomasin and Caleb head off into the woods to try and find food for the family, against the will of their parents. Whilst there, things go awry and they’re split up and while Thomasin finds her way out, Caleb gets lost and ends up finding an old house and meets an alluring woman who isn’t exactly as she first appears, and this is obvious. It’s not done in a Sam Raimi-way though, it’s knowingly terrifying, and so you’re hooked to know what transpired as it cuts away.
Back on the farm, they think Caleb is gone but one rainy night, he returns home, and something is very wrong. He’s incredibly sick, you could say possessed by something. With all the mounting pressure and paranoia, William and Katherine begin to question Thomasin on whether she’s a witch, which is a story unintentionally created because she was teasing her young siblings. While she isn’t, and is suffering as much as them, the addition of deep tiredness, heavy hunger and stress high, events spiral down for everyone right up to a stellar finale.
This Second Sight limited edition of The Witch offers us a new HDR grade, supervised by director Robert Eggers, and you can feel every shot and emotion. Whilst some films in the psychological horror realm, especially of late, push the oppressive nature of the situation, there’s something more thought-provoking about The Witch, as the story it tells is simple but it’s playing on the nature of the mind, as well as the odd piece of unidentified, and while all that is there, you’re rooted in the intrigue. There’s no doubt it’s a persistently murky world, but it’s also fascinating.
Offering up a strong concoction of intense sound and inventive editing entwined, The Witch also offers questions of religion, belief and state of mind in that historical era, all wrapped up in a earthy story, shot with natural light and powerful performances from every actor involved. This is an experience; it sometimes feels like the film that the likes of The Village wanted to be but only Eggers has brought this one to life and taken it through to death. When is a witch not a witch? Well, you’ll have to step into the woods for your own unexpectedly compelling puritan nightmare…
The Special Features offer extensive layers to the story, and how it came to be. As well as the new 4K UHD with new Dolby Vision HDR grade, there’s also archive audio commentary by Director Robert Eggers, and new audio commentary by film writer and broadcaster Anna Bogutskaya.
A Puritan Nightmare: a new interview with Robert Eggers – This is the director telling his story of his life and how the film came to be. Eggers grew up in New England, so this was a passion project, especially with his knowledge of its history and his personal love for the macabre. He’s clear that the horror has always been in New England, whether you choose to accept it or not. He talks about the early ideas for The Witch, and picturing people living a medieval life, purely because they left the UK for the US. He mentioned the strangeness of the Puritans themselves, and their extreme religious views – and when has that ever been good? So, the fairy tales and the reality crossover when you delve into his film, of course. He talks about financing, how he thought it wasn’t going to happen in the early days, but discussions with his production team and film companies meant specific desires came from what he wanted to create, and what an outcome! It’s fascinating to listen to.
Embracing Darkness: a new interview with Anya Taylor-Joy – She speaks of getting the script for The Witch, and she only read it the night before because she wanted to approach it in that moment and was impressed by its quality but also how intense the character felt. It’s more than that as well, because they became a family after the film, and they’re still in touch. And the film does feel like it’s the right actors in the perfect moment, and what an impressive career it kicked off for Anya!
Love Thy Father: a new interview Ralph Ineson – The wonderfully deep voice of Ralph discusses how he got the script, and maybe things weren’t ideal in his career, so put the script away for a while – and then revisited and then, history was made. He talks of William’s mix of characters emotions, of his own doubt for his life and family, which drew him right in. He talks of ‘all that’ wood cutting, and you’ll know it if you see it, plus his weight loss to get even deeper into the reality of his character. He also talks about how that routine kept it demanding but in a way that made it stronger. Oh, and his life with the goat and hospitals – which must be heard to be appreciated!
A Pious Wife: a new interview with Actor Kate Dickie – Here, we listen to the excellent Kate Dickie as she talks about her amazement at this Jacobian family drama being made, and how authentic that felt, and how she had to be involved. She also discusses getting in the mindset of her character, learning the real prayers as not to fake it, and positive rehearsals for all the right reasons. She also found Katherine quite difficult to let go of afterwards, because of the commitment and connection she made with her family setting, although fascinated by her with all the complexity. It’s another great insight!
Caleb’s Lament: a new interview with Actor Harvey Scrimshaw – Harvey, now much older of course, was new to the game but was convinced by his agent to go the audition. But, as younger during filming, was concerned about certain elements but he felt that connection of the final cast coming together. He talks about working with Eggers and his directorial approach as well. It’s interesting to hear him talk about how hard he found some scenes, like the possession, because he’s bloody great in it, so all that support clearly came to the fore – and a family connection!
A Primal Folktale: features interviews with Robert Eggers and cast – This is one of those classic on-set featurettes, so that placement makes it an extra viewpoint from all.
BFI London Film Festival Q&A with Robert Eggers, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Producer Jay Van Hoy – This is the 10-minute Q&A from the 2015 BFI London Film Festival, so if you’ve been to one of these event, you’ll know the brief exerts of discussion and what to expect, it’s a nice extra because it’s very much in the moment of a first viewing for an excited audience.
Brothers: a short film by Robert Eggers – Brothers is a 10-minute film from Eggers, made in 2013, that displays similar ambiance to The Witch, especially with natural light and the setting, plus the dirt under the fingernails and the rough edges that’ll come to be a given in his back catalogue. It also features two strong performances, and you’ll notice names in the crew that’ll become part of the creative team he’ll take with him on his filmmaking journey ahead…
It also features optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired, and the Collectors set comes in a rigid slipcase with new artwork by Peter Diamond, plus a 150 page hardback book with new essays by Emerson Baker, Daniel Bird, Anton Bitel, Charles Bramesco, Lillian Crawford, Shelagh Rowan-Legg and Anya Stanley plus stills, costume and production design gallery, and 6 collectors’ art cards!