Among a tantalising selection of anticipated premieres (Tickled, Where To Invade Next) and inspired revival screenings (The Iron Giant, Fargo, Stop Making Sense), this year's NZIFF Autumn Events features the New Zealand debut of one of the most stunningly assured horror movies of the last decade.
Robert Eggers' The Witch tells the distressingly immersive tale of a God-fearing immigrant family in 1630 New England. Exiled from their community, they set up home next to an ominous forest. When the infant son of the family disappears, some very old-fashioned superstitions come into play, and unspeakable horrors loom.
The film generated extremely positive buzz on premiering at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically in the US in February this year, garnering a rapturous critical response.
Eggers and his collaborators do an amazing job of evoking the wood-etched fear of witches that people from the 1700s lived with. There is nothing post-modern happening here at all, and the film is all the scarier for it.
The Witch emphatically reclaims its titular subject from the systemic defanging that began with '60s sitcom Bewitched and was perpetuated by films like Hocus Pocus and shows such as Sabrina The Teenage Witch. The Witch reminds us why witches were scary in the first place, and gloriously so.
Among numerous unnerving threads, the film is especially potent in how the witch represents a sexual allure for the pubescent Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw).
The old-fashioned dialogue ('thee' and 'thou' show up a lot) could easily have derailed the proceedings in lesser actors' hands, but the six (mostly English) performers making up the family (including Scrimshaw) all contribute greatly to the film's ground-level authenticity.
Two actors recognisable from Game of Thrones, Katie Dickie and Ralph Ineson (aka The Office's Finchy), play the mother and father, and it's not just their angular features that help sell the era - they both deliver exhaustive performances that revel in and subvert their parental roles.
As the young Jonas and Mercy, Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson present the creepiest movie twins since Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, a clear influence on The Witch, especially in the endlessly creepy sound design.
The most memorable (human) performance in the film, however, comes from Anya Taylor-Joy as teenage daughter Thomasin, who is essentially the main character.
In her introductory scene alone, Taylor-Joy announces herself as a major contemporary talent with just her startlingly expressive eyes. She goes on to deliver a performance that bears many of the film's most distressing moments, and she proves a capable and heart-breaking audience proxy.
The film's most amazing non-human performance comes from Black Phillip, the family's ornery goat. There's never been an animal performance like it, and he still haunts my nightmares.
Upon its initial release, some horror fans complained The Witch didn't feature enough actual horror, but that is simply crazy. While the storytelling on display is substantially more artful than what most average horrors offer up, there's more than enough tangible dread to sustain the film between its more overtly horrific moments.
Also, Lorde is a fan. Don't miss it.
Info on the film's Autumn Events screenings can be found here.
Are you amped for The Witch? Comment below!