Potently unsettling tale burrows into your head to where nightmares live
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie
Directed by Robert Eggers
In the modern world, “devils” are mascots for sports teams and witches vex pretty Disney princesses. But once upon a time, such things were much more serious and much scarier.
That’s the serious, scary and seriously scary setting for The Witch, in which a devout family in early 17th century New England is exiled from their settlement—the father (Ralph Ineson, who played Amycus Carrow in the Harry Potter movies) is too overbearing in his religious beliefs even for his Puritan neighbors to bear. When their one-horse wagon finally stops, they homestead on a scruffy patch of ground at the edge of a remote, dense forest.
Just as they’re getting into the rhythms of their new life, things start to go woefully wrong, beginning with the disappearance of their new baby boy, giggling in the grass one moment and gone the next. Did a wolf gobble him up? Or was it something more sinister—maybe a shape-shifting, spell-casting, baby-snatching sorceress?
All eyes look to the woods—and to the oldest child, teenage daughter Thomasin (19-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy), who was in charge of watching the baby. She can’t explain what happened, and her inconsolable mother (Kate Dickie, from TV’s Game of Thrones) can’t forgive her. Her little brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), can’t stop casting guilty glances at her ripening signs of young-womanhood. And her very name itself includes the word “sin.”
Something wicked this way comes, indeed, especially when heinous accusations start to fly, pious prayers fill the air, crops fail, the chicken lays a bloody egg, and and the family goat, ominously named Black Phillip, begins to look, and act, more malevolent ever minute.
This super-creepy, potently unsettling film bowled audiences over last year at Sundance, where it took top honors for director Robert Eggers. It’s being marketed as a horror movie, and it certainly is that, but it has little in common with many other contemporary flicks sharing the label.
It’s a period piece rich in precise historical detail (including language), dedicated to an unflinching depiction of religious obsession driven to unholy extremes. Eggers drills into the same demonic DNA that made such movie classics as The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining such disturbing dynamite; some of his images get inside your head and nest deep into cracks where nightmares live and lurk. It’s the first movie I’ve ever noticed a credit for a mental health counselor.
The movie is an eerie, roiling brew of double, double, toil and trouble, to be sure. But it also makes no bones about how Christian fanaticism in early America sometimes ran off the rails and plunged straight into the devil’s playground, especially when fear, superstition, hysteria and the suppression and oppression of females helped stir the cauldron. You don’t have to squint to see, a few decades down the road and just beyond the movie’s frame of reference, the notorious Salem witch trials looming in the distance.
The performances are riveting, especially from the youngsters, all newcomers. The soundtrack’s combination of synthesizers, dissonant orchestral tones and wordless choral pieces gives everything an unnerving underpinning of constant tension and dread. Director Eggers, a former production designer making his feature-film debut, is certainly a new talent to watch.
And The Witch, in limited release, is a knockout of a movie you should seek out—especially if you’re seeking something nightmarishly new that will chill you, and haunt you, like it’s the 1600s all over again.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine