The Witch opens with a man in front of a room of judges, his family behind him, being banished from his 1600s New England community for a difference in religious beliefs. Why did we leave England, he muses, if not for that very freedom from persecution? The problem with leaving due to religious quibbles, it turns out, is that the new land might turn out to be even less forgiving. Those with a strict ideology will often come in conflict with new surroundings, especially when their surroundings include servants of Satan himself.
That’s the premise of The Witch, a beautifully creepy horror movie that gets great milage out of its period setting. When the family’s youngest is stolen in broad daylight, their immense grief is supplanted with a deep suspicion; was this the work of a wolf, or something more supernatural (and titular)? The audience is told immediately in a deeply unsettling way, but the dramatic irony is used to great effect as the family starts to turn on each other.
The audience is given two main entry points: eldest daughter Thomasin and second-eldest son Caleb. Both are starting to mature into adults, and that process forms the second thematic backbone of the movie. Caleb is an exemplar of pubescent male confusion compounded by his insulated environment. At a point where he carries his father’s rifle, it is made clear that Caleb is still small and unprepared for the world. Meanwhile, Thomasin’s maturation into a woman is met with scorn and distrust, and thrusts her into direct conflict with her parents’ expectations.
But is it scary? The Witch’s hype brings to mind the buzz surrounding last year’s It Follows, which was similarly distinct and notably very very scary (and the second-best movie of the year). The Witch isn’t as terrifyingly tense in the moment as that film, but its the type of horror that sticks to your bones and leaves you staring blankly through the credits. All the pieces work to form a distinct tone, from the slightly-cliche stringed score to the dusty farm set we spend our time on (writer-director Robert Eggers cut his teeth as a costume and set designer, and it shows). It knows how to cut away from disturbing material the second the scene fully sinks in, disturbing without disgusting the audience, and it has more than its share of indelible images (one involving a raven sticks out in particular). Indeed, the one notable time it goes for a more traditional scare near the end comes across as cheesy. It stubbornly sticks to folklore-appropriate period dialogue (thy’s and dost’s abound), which can sometimes get confusing and cause a slight remove, but the characters are remarkably well-formed despite this barrier. All in all, The Witch is a memorable, original, and thematically rich creepshow.
The Witch (2016)
Dir. by Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw, Kate Dickie, and Ralph Ineson
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)