The Witch, subtitled “A New England Folktale”, is only a horror film insofar as there is not a better label to place on it. Really, it isn’t so much a horror movie as much as it feels like a horror film while you’re watching it. Writer/director Robert Eggers achieves the effect by ratcheting the tension up to about an eight in the opening scenes and holding it at that level for an hour and a half. It is a supernatural thriller more in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby than The Exorcist, playing upon the audience’s sense of dread rather than abject horror.
The Witch opens with the banishment of puritan farmer William (Ralph Ineson) from his 17th century New England community for the crime of heresy; several months later William has constructed a farm on the edge of a forest that looks more than a little foreboding. When newborn Samuel is abducted by the titular occultist (not a spoiler) parents William and Katherine (Katie Dickie) are forced to look a their children, angry teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), tween Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) who is experiencing the first pangs of sexual desire, and twins Mercy and Caleb (Ellie Granger and Lucas Dawson) who have and unnerving habit of roughhousing with a sinister-looking goat called Black Philip, and wonder if one, or all of them, is in the league with the devil. Family tensions combine with supernatural terror, as the family slides inevitably toward a confrontation with the dark one, and it is clear that no one in this Puritan clan is as godly as they would have others believe.
The Witch, is the feature writing and directing debut for Robert Eggers, establishing him as a talent to watch. Eggers takes a novel idea, taking early-American folklore and fear of the unknown and treating them as fact, and executes it near-perfectly (the exception being the film’s unfortunately unsubtle ending), creating a masterwork of mood and atmosphere. The Witch features a refreshing lack of computer-generated imagery, relying on tactility, photography, and an unsettling score by composer Mark Korven for its scares. Much credit is due to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who gives the grays, browns, and blacks of late-Autumn New England a deep richness, and who makes the audience see the woods as colonial Americans would have seen them, something dark and unknowable, a home to the forces of evil. There is fresh young talent on display across the boards, in addition to Eggers, with newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw standing out as, hopefully, stars of the future.
A frustration in reviewing The Witch is how little about it can be written without stumbling into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that the film is joyously creepy and unexpected, as assured and skillfully constructed a debut film as you’re likely to see. Robert Eggers has arrived. B+
Director: Robert Eggers/ Writer: Robert Eggers/ Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Katie Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson/ Rated: R / 93 min.