Directed by Robert Eggers
Opens February 15
Around this time last year, I was busy recommending arty spring horror movie It Follows to non-horror fans with the description that it was more creepy and atmospheric than scary, per se. I had a similar thought while watching this year’s arty spring horror movie The Witch, minus the universal recommendation bit—not because the movie isn’t worth seeing, but because it replaces that traditional scariness (the creaks, the jumps, the exploitation of familiar fears) with something more upsetting and visceral. It would be misleading, then, to say that The Witch “isn’t scary,” even though it lacks the spookhouse atmosphere of, say, The Conjuring. At its most intense slow-scald, it’s almost too unsettling for scares.
At a farmhouse on the outskirts of the woods in mid-seventeenth-century New England, a baby goes missing from a large family. They suspect, with growing dread, the presence of witchcraft. Usually accusations of witchcraft are leveled by a community, but The Witch dispenses with that dimension straight away; the central family is first seen ordered to leave their New England Puritan settlement for vague but apparently contentious reasons—something to do with religion. But it doesn’t take a village to destroy a reputation and soon eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, an apparently terrific newcomer with the watchful eyes of an alien Katherine Heigl) is the object of suspicion of her father William (Ralph Ineson, with a slight resemblance to Peter Sellers) and especially her mother Katherine (Kate Dickie). It doesn’t help that she impulsively boasts of evil powers in order to scold the wild siblings (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) she can’t control; basically this is a parable about the hassles of being an oldest sibling.
It’s also freaky as fuck, weaving in states—of grief, of faith—that are often treated superficially in this genre. Though there is some real horror-movie imagery on hand, writer-director Robert Eggers also summons dread with small farmhouse touches: the thwack of an axe on wood, the eyes of a goat called Black Philip, the rustles of branches. To create this barren space, he drains almost as much color out of the image as a late-period Clint Eastwood movie and shoots in the slightly boxy 1.66 aspect ratio (a neat touch that both keeps plenty out of frame while also provoking in me the tiniest bit of skepticism about its intimations of period-appropriate technology that wouldn’t exist for hundreds of years—oh, this movie uses an older AR because if movies had been around in the 1600s, they would’ve been slightly more square?).
The Witch isn’t an utter original; it rolls up elements of The Village, The Crucible, the story of Hansel and Gretel, and any number of haunted-house movies. If the latter introduces a slight case of haunting passivity (attempts to charge into the forest are frequently thwarted), it also lends the story an unnerving unpredictability. What is this evil, whose is it, and where does it go? The film’s primal power is left hanging in the chilly air.