There’s nothing better than a horror film that knows just how to manipulate our dread of the unknown. The Witch has many spooky figures: a goat named Black Phillip who might just be an agent of Satan, a beady-eyed rabbit who keeps appearing out of nowhere, a haggard crone who kidnaps babies and grinds them into a bloody pulp. But none manage to be quite as terrifying as a quiet shot of the hemlock trees lining the entrance to the woods near a family home. This is a film that conjures its scares not from sharp jumps, but from the eerie hostility of the untamed American wilderness.
The Witch is subtitled A New England Folk Tale, and it walks a curious line between faithful period detail and supernatural weirdness. A postscript notes that its dialogue was inspired by court transcripts of the 1630s, the early Puritan era in which it’s set; like the many hokey tales of women in bonnets that have preceded it, it features a pious family with a growing suspicion of witchcraft. The only difference is that almost immediately, the audience sees that the threat is real—there is evil in the wood, and it intends wicked misfortune. The movie’s first-time director, Robert Eggers, blends authenticity with black magic, and the result is giddying.
In the film’s early scenes, a New England family are turfed out of their village because of their religious beliefs and forced to live on the edge of the wilderness, after which they lose their infant son in a mysterious kidnapping. The patriarch, William (Ralph Ineson), professes piety while trying to hide prideful transgressions; his wife Katherine (Kate Dickey) fears that their son was taken to answer for their sins; and their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) provokes suspicion from her parents with her precocious and outspoken behavior. The audience sees exactly who took the baby—a wizened crone, shot in shadow, played by the wonderfully named Bathsheba Garnett—but this does nothing to blunt the film’s mounting tension.
Like many an indie horror sensation, The Witch succeeds not by action, or the specter of its central monster, but by its immersive details. From the family’s sad bundles of corn, which quickly wither in the face of unknown evil, to their simple prayer sessions shot entirely by candlelight, the disaster of their new life away from civilization comes into clearer and clearer focus, starting with the mundane (hunger, crop failure) and building to the symbolic (Thomasin milks Black Philip, and all he produces is blood). This tension finally crests into a dizzying final act that flips the audience’s expectations on their heads.
What’s scary, of course, is a matter of individual preference, and The Witch’s particular emphasis on atmospherics may thwart some moviegoers’ expectations. The simple conceit of It Follows—a monster who takes the form of an ordinary person—was too mundane for some; The Blair Witch Project’s shaky-cam marathon in the woods left many viewers nauseated rather than terrified. Like those films, The Witch uses its barren locations, and languorous pace as a weapon—just don’t go in expecting a mile-a-minute thrill ride.
Indeed, the subtitle “A New England Folk Tale” feels particularly important—this isn’t a morality play so much as a dark story to be whispered by the fire at night. Ineson and Dickey take care not to make their characters simple zealots who deserve their fate. They love their family, even if the manner in which they do is sometimes curious to modern eyes, and their transgressions against God are minor, but feel major to them. Taylor-Joy is a revelation as Thomasin, who feels compelled to respect her elders and is led down not a simple path of temptation, but a winding road of Satanic entrapment. The greatest character of all is the witch herself, barely seen, but standing for so much—flowering sexuality, the untamed wild, fear of the unknown. For such a phenomenal debut film, Eggers could not have conjured up a greater adversary.