In the midst of cheaply made slasher sequels, gornos and paranormal pictures, directors fresh out of film school have been adapting their own nightmares for the silver screen in hopes of reinvigorating the well-worn genre. This movement began in 2014 with Jennifer Kent's "The Babadook" and continued in 2015 with David Robert Mitchell's "It Follows." Rather than sneak up from behind, tap you on your left shoulder and pop out from your right over and over again, these films seek to insidiously trap you in a dark corner and leave you curled up in the fetal position, shivering with fear. "The Witch" is perhaps the most successful at this approach in horror filmmaking. Less of a supernatural thriller and more of a dread-soaked familial drama, the directorial debut of Robert Eggers cuts deep into the blackest parts of the human soul, revealing images that would likely wet the pants of Hawthorne, Poe and other Gothic fanatics.
In the year 1630, a Puritan family living in New England is cast out from their plantation and forced to start life anew at the edge of an ominous forest. Not long after they settle into their new home, things start to take a sinister turn. Crops begin to fail, and the mother-wife's newborn son is abducted. Suspecting that this is the work of a witch dwelling in the woods, the family is left only with prayer and the hope that this evil will be vanquished. The effects of this tragedy wear them out and eventually threaten to tear the family apart forever.
What viewers will immediately notice is the uncanny amount of detail put into the re-creation of 17th century life and culture. Eggers has noted that he sifted through stacks of documents written during the period while developing the film's dialogue. Though much of the plot is advanced without it, the Old English speak is remarkably straightforward, so those who fear Shakespeare should not be troubled by it. Accounts of witchcraft were also cited heavily in the making of the film's devil-loving antagonist. The witch herself only appears a few times, appropriately filmed in thick shadow, but her looming presence echoes throughout the whole endeavor.
With expert sound design and a gleefully creepy score, Eggers successfully achieves the tone he desires here, but it's really only half the picture. The other half of "The Witch" belongs to its dedicated cast. There's not a sour note heard among anyone, not even the children. Harvey Scrimshaw, who plays the eldest son, Caleb, displays some impressive work, particularly during a scene involving possession. "Game of Thrones" alumni Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie are also worth noting as the troubled parents who succumb to bursts of religious hysteria. The film's crowning jewel, however, is Anya Taylor-Joy as the eldest daughter, Thomasin. Much of her screen-time is composed of doe-eyed gazes shot in mid to extreme close-up, but there is an awful lot going on behind those eyes. She, like Eggers, has a bright future ahead of her.
For a film that so heavily relies on slow-burning tension, "The Witch" is paced rather mercifully. Other films akin to this one tend to drag on just a bit in their attempts to convey meaning through a series of meticulously constructed visuals. While Eggers and his cinematographer do conceive some compelling (and disturbing) images reminiscent of those seen in the films of Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman, they are careful not to stop dead in their tracks just to admire the scenery. The shortage of conventional scares will have its detractors, while others will laud "The Witch" for its structure as one feature-length fright. It's a terrifically restrained film that depicts an evil so unrelenting, you'll swear the film itself is evil.