Just a Little Hocus Pocus: "The Witch" an unsettling Puritan nightmare not to be forgotten

The Witch (2016)
92 min., rated R.

The toast of the festival circuit, “The Witch” is so masterfully crafted that it is even being endorsed by the Satanic Temple. Set in 1630, New England before the Salem Witch Trials and subtitled as “A New England Folktale,” the film is unsettling and transfixing as one watches forbidding evil encroach upon a pastoral family of faith and the suspicion of the innocent escalating. Deservedly winning the Directing Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Robert Eggers confidently makes his pièce de résistance of a directorial debut, transporting the viewer to the early 17th century with uncanny verisimilitude and chilling foreboding. Ominous, deeply unnerving and beautifully spare, “The Witch” requires patience but has the potency of haunting long after the credits roll. That's the sign of one unforgettable folktale.

Exiled from their village for practicing their Puritan Christianity, stern English patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) moves wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children to the edge of the woods. William and eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) build a new farm and search for dinner, while Katherine and teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) tend the home and twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) play. When Thomasin plays peek-a-boo with infant Samuel one morning, he gets snatched up as soon as his sister uncovers her eyes. Was it a wolf? Or does “the witch of the wood” that Thomasin teased her youngest siblings about really exist? It become mighty clear once the family’s crops begin to fail and their goat, Black Philip, turns aggressive, but then the parents start pointing fingers at Thomasin.

A slow-burn mood piece rich in portent, dread and ambience, “The Witch” is meticulously mounted with the measured pulse and sobering tone of a harsher, much earlier time. Writer-director Robert Eggers sets up a family dynamic, only to ask the viewer to watch it crumble after paranoia sinks in. His screenplay is thematically rooted in religious extremism, doubt, corruption, temptation and the universal fear of the unknown, and Thomasin being suspected of being a witch by her family is smartly linked to the young woman’s burgeoning sexuality. Besides provoking actual thought, the film just plain disturbs both in horrific imagery and effective suggestion, aided by Mark Korven’s sinister, skin-crawling violin-heavy score and Jarin Blaschke’s gray, austere cinematography. Eggers doesn’t solely rely on shocks, but when those shocking payoffs do come, everyone’s longstanding fear for witches will extend to hares, crows and goats, which get turned into vessels of malevolence. Immediately following the disappearance of Samuel, there are also glimpses of an old crone, naked and rubbing blood over herself. When the film arrives at a conclusion eerie, unsparing, mystical and orgiastic all at once, how it gets there can best be left up to a few different interpretations.

19-year-old newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent as Thomasin, the film’s emotional center. She has a graceful, bewitching Fanning sister quality, all angelic innocence and comely virginity, but Taylor-Joy is also challenged by the path Thomasin will take that is scarier than becoming a woman. As parents William and Katherine, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie have such a period specificity, as if they were both brought back from 1630. Ineson is formidable but moving as a father who's just trying his best to start a new life with his family, and Dickie is heartbreakingly tragic as a mother who feels like she has nothing left. Another newcomer, Harvey Scrimshaw impresses as second eldest child Caleb, conveying uncertainty and faux-confidence before becoming lured by curiosity and teenage lust. In a startling key scene that never turns campy, the young actor also masters possession. Finally, Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger bring unpredictable mischief to the roles of twins Jonas and Mercy.

Clearly a detail-oriented stickler who studied religious texts and diaries from the period, Robert Eggers has done his exhaustive homework. Everything in the frame seems so precise, authentic and naturalistic, right down to every actor speaking the Olde English language. Many have griped that the dialect renders the dialogue nearly indecipherable, but remaining quiet and attentive might make a difference. Even if one counted out the film's horror aspect, the production alone is a spellbinding achievement. With numerous production design credits, writer-director Robert Eggers has surrounded himself with exceptional talent behind the camera, starting with Craig Lathrop’s painstaking production design and Linda Muir’s costuming. By reliable distributor A24 opening it theatrically in the mainstream market, “The Witch” hopefully doesn’t get ignored by those who only like their horror movies with jump scares or loads of gore. It’s not scary by conventional boo-machine standards, but it creeps under one’s skin and is the first truly accomplished horror film of 2016 thus far.

Grade: A -