There’s something so alarmingly primordial about “The Witch” that you begin to understand why people are afraid of the dark. And in 1630, in the sparsely populated New England colonies, dark meant dark. In a tiny farmhouse on the edge of a forest, it’s easy to understand why night was dreaded and superstition held sway over people trying to hack their lives out of the wilderness.
In writer/director Robert Eggers’ feature debut, the subjects of witchcraft and superstition get a distinctly modern treatment in a story set in what seems a very distant past. People believed in witches in Massachusetts Bay three hundred years ago and saw them as a threat to the patriarchal Christian social structure. So well does Eggers recreate the atmosphere of paranoia and dread you may well find yourself jumping at shadows as the movie unfolds.
Ralph Ineson (“Game of Thrones,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) plays William, a Puritan husband and father who’s just gotten himself – and his family – banished from their settlement over nebulous religious doctrine issues. He leads his wife Katharine (Kate Dickie) and their five children to a stretch of barren-looking land at the edge of a forbidding forest. Eggers and his DP Jarin Blaschke have shot their spare and forbidding story in a very muted pallette. The color has certainly been bleached in post-production. That’s gotten to be a cliché in a lot of modern movies but it works here. There is nothing lush in this wilderness landscape, no hope of anything green. The entire world seems blighted. Everything is brown and gray and it hardly seems surprising that William is a complete failure as a farmer. Nonetheless, it’s just as easy to blame blighted crops on diabolical causes as it is vagaries of nature or not knowing when to water.
Things begin to go south early, when the family’s youngest child, infant Samuel, suddenly and mysteriously disappears during an apparently innocent game of peekaboo with older sister Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). The child is subsequently briefly glimpsed in some sort of blood rite, which is ambiguously directed. Has Samuel been kidnapped for a Satanic sacrifice? Or is this the paranoid delusion of his guilt ridden, god-fearing parents? This is a movie that takes nearly sadistic pleasure in posing questions faster than it answers them, but we soon come to understand that something evil (Bathsheba Garnett, as your basic Satanic sorceress) is lurking out there in the woods.
This is a horror movie after all, but a very different one from the current crop of PG-13, contemporary setting, haunted house spook shows. There is no appreciable influence from “Paranormal Activity.” Eggers’ roots lie more in Kubrick’s “The Shining,” and to some degree “The Exorcist.” There are fewer graphic shocks delivered here than in either of those, though. Eggers is well aware that very often what the audience doesn’t see can be more horrifying than what they do, and although there’s enough violence and nudity to justify the R rating, this movie has been shot with remarkable discretion.
Guilt is a consistent theme throughout the movie, feeding the ever-present sense of dread and primordial terror. William’s second eldest child, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is a God-fearing boy who tries to help his family, even venturing into the nearby woods in search of food and animal pelts. Even Caleb, a genuinely good-hearted kid, is not immune to impure thoughts, which Eggers disconcertingly alludes to with furtive point of view shots of Thomasin’s largely covered, budding bosom. Just as unnerving are younger twin siblings, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), bad seed types if ever there were, who seem to have wandered in from “The Shining” and who claim to believe that Thomasin is the devil’s handmaiden, although they’re the ones who have formed a worrisome attachment to the family goat, unencouragingly named Black Philip.
You almost have to wonder why these characters would even have a black goat named Black Philip, given the long association of goats with the devil. But that’s only one of the horror tropes in play here, along with the bad seedlings, a scary rabbit that serves as the same sort of harbinger of doom as the rottweilers in “The Omen” and the mother turning into an hysterical hag when things go from bad to worse.
Like any good horror movie, once the scary stuff starts happening, it snowballs, and the hapless family in “The Witch” is subjected to disaster after disaster. They are as isolated as if they were marooned on an alien planet, and their reliance on religious faith, which is inextricably intertwined with errant superstition, soon emerges as a two-edged sword. Suddenly the madness of the Salem witch trials doesn’t seem so surprising.
The performances are impressive, particularly given the challenges posed by the scrupulous adherence to early 17th century English – much of the dialogue was taken from period texts. Ineson is appropriately tortured, a nuanced portrait of multilayered guilt. There is every reason to suspect that William’s ego had something to do with their exile from the settlement, and his inability to make a go of farming now endangers his family’s survival. Taylor-Joy may be an unknown now but she won’t stay that way long. Her star-making turn here should have her in demand quickly. But to a very large degree it’s the craftsmanship behind this meticulously produced movie that elevates it. The natural light photography evokes perpetual twilight and there’s nothing romantic about that – it’s just cold. Costume designer Linda Muir’s hand-stitched creations are museum-quality.
The relentlessness of “The Witch” is close to punishing. But for those who can handle it, this is a remarkably intelligent and genuinely frightening movie. You won’t be sorry when the house lights come back on after the end credits have rolled.