The Witch,
directed by Robert Eggers
(A24, 2016)

This horror story, set in the early colonial period of New England, is authentic feeling, well-acted and beautifully shot, definitely one of the better made horror entries of recent years.

The Witch is a taut, unnerving descent into religious paranoia. It's a surreal fairy tale come to life, as well as an excellent depiction of a time when every moment was concerned with survival of body and soul.

In 17th-century New England, where devout Puritans have started a new life, a family is banished from the protection of the village due to the father's "prideful conceit." The zealous father, William (Ralph Ineson), refuses to repent, challenging the elders even as he leaves. William and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), create a home at the edge of the forest. No sooner have they built their home than trouble descends, with eldest daughter Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) at the heart of the misfortune.

Slowly but surely the family is rent asunder by tragedy after tragedy. The corn rots on the stalk. Their traps are empty. The farm animals become aggressive, with one in particular, a black ram named Old Philip, exhibiting rather malicious behavior. More horrifyingly, their infant child is stolen. The narrative plays out exactly like a tale from Grimm's. After all, it's subtitled "A New England Folktale."

Painstaking period recreation gives the movie its gritty texture. Shooting in natural light makes every shadow into a nightmare. Almost as bad as the slowly escalating torment the family suffers at the hands of the witches is the unwinding from within due to mistrust and fear. Is it William's defiance that is corrosive? Is it an invisible, unnatural force impacting them? That's what makes The Witch such a complex, dark story, one that is fairly dripping with malevolence. Religion, folklore and actual history (in the form of attention to detail) combine to create the feeling that genuine evil is present, pressing in irresistibly from Nature itself.

The slow ratcheting of tension leads to a devastating payoff. It's as much about a girl who is trapped, suffering the sort of nuanced abuse that girls in traditional societies often live with. Her eventual fate is understandable.

Beautiful, bleak and unsettling, this sinister, stylish, under-the-skin thriller is a masterpiece. It's brilliant, raw and primordial all at the same time, and it's going to keep you up at night wondering if things like that could ever really happen.

review by
Mary Harvey

25 March 2017

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