Nothing is more terrifying than a teenage girl, except perhaps the mysterious witch of the woods. There’s also no better scapegoat. Such is the premise of writer-director Robert Eggers’ masterfully directed but disappointingly dull psychological horror film, “The VVitch” set in seventeenth century New England. When the patriarch William (Ralph Ineson with lengthy, curly, Jesus-like locks) gets exiled from the local settlement, he and his family move to the edge of the woods to start a farm.
Humiliated and in constant fear of his masculinity being challenged, William at times betrays his family or causes trouble while knowingly letting his teenage daughter Thomasina (the mischievously angel-faced Anya Taylor-Joy) take the blame. Meanwhile, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) is starting to feel threatened by Thomasina’s budding sexuality and wants to marry her off quickly. When Thomasina’s baby brother mysteriously disappears into the woods on her watch, it’s not long before the family assumes witchcraft is afoot and that Thomasina is responsible. Given their fears, she’s a convenient scapegoat for her parents.
The woods loom large in the film as a source of danger and freedom. We often see them at the back of the frame, behind the family’s house, in a long shot, with eerie and even high-pitched music to warn us of their threat. When in the woods, Eggers always shoots the children between trunks and branches, always partially obscured: it’s the most fun they have, and it’s also the most terrifying place. And it’s a metaphor in neon lights.
The scares — and I did jump a few times — come mostly from the psychological: the loud bangs of William getting out his frustration by chopping wood or the subtle treachery of Thomasina’s family when she’s clearly innocent. But there are more interesting ways to explore how afraid we are of girl sexuality and how god-fearing Christians can use their faith for destruction.
“The VVitch” screens Fri. Sept. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at Ryerson and Sat. Sept 19 at 9:15 p.m. at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema as part of the Special Presentations section at TIFF. It will be distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures in 2016. Tickets can be purchased here.