Hollywood’s mountainous sludge pile of cheap-thrill horror movies never seems to top out. But despite the odds, every once in a while a real-deal horror movie surfaces—one that burrows under the skin, messes with your head, teases the intellect, dips you neck-deep into perversity and resonates like hell. Count The Witch among the latter.
An assured and personal debut movie from writer-director Robert Eggers, this one’s the stuff of clammy, claustrophobic dread. It’s subtitled “A New England Folk Tale” and it’s set circa 1630, when a family of pilgrims—an ultra pious woodcutter father (Ralph Ineson), his devout, troubled wife (Kate Dickie) and their five kids—get exiled from their New World community to a barren wasteland near the woods, where the sense of something terrifying out there is palpable. They build a self-sustaining farm and things appear to be going well enough, considering that the hurdles include crippling solitude, guilt, spooky local superstitions and religious mania. Then, the family’s eldest daughter (the stunning Anya Taylor-Joy in a breakout performance) plays a seemingly innocent game of peekaboo with her infant brother and the baby gets snatched by… well, you know the title of the movie. After that, animals turn nasty, the farm falters and accusations of witchcraft fly as the family unravels.
Eggers keeps things at a slow, brooding pace, with the actors intoning “thees” and “thous” in murky English accents. He also keeps the scares in the eerie, unsettling arena, avoiding “jump” moments. In other words, not the sort of raw meat preferred by most contemporary horror audiences. Having worked in production and costume design, Eggers also appears to have digested classic technique from silent movies, Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick, not to mention Arthur Miller’s masterful play The Crucible and the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The movie is quite a calling card for a new director, one too talented to find himself confined to making franchise movies with numbers after the title.
The Witch is also good to look at: immaculately shot in austere grays by Jarin Blaschke with an available-light aesthetic that resembles the paintings of 17th century Dutch masters. And the jagged musical score by Mark Korven drives home the creepiness as well as the ambiguities. Never pushing its obvious contemporary parallels or commenting directly on America’s tendency toward fundamentalist hysteria, The Witch is so diabolically good that it sends genre expectations—and appreciative members of the audience—straight down the booby hatch.