The Witch: A New-England Folktale is somewhat of an anomaly in today’s cinematic marketplace: a horror film which favors atmosphere over dismemberment, period flavor over mutilation. Its creepily-effective mood builds slowly, driven by solid performances (especially from newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy) and a score stacked with discordant harmonics—Mark Korven’s groaning instrumentation repeatedly builds to a deafening crescendo before a scene cuts to inky black silence.
This is writer-director Robert Eggers’ first film and it shows considerable promise in some of the risks it takes. Alas, its murky cinematography, frequently shot at night or by candlelight, often detracts, as does the muddy Olde English mumblecore required of the cast.
I would have liked to see more of what I was supposed to be seeing and hear more of what I was supposed to be hearing.
The year is 1630, give or take, and farmer William (Ralph Ineson, exercising his extra thick Yorkshire tongue) and his family are being banished from a Puritan plantation on account of his nonconforming religious views. William and his wife Kate (Kate Dickie) establish a farm on the outskirts of a foreboding forest for their family of six—eldest daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), middle son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and twin brats Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). Kate soon gives birth to a fifth child, Sam, but when Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with him in the woods one day, the child mysteriously disappears. Soon afterwards, Caleb also goes missing in the woods under Thomasin’s charge and the twins accuse her of being a witch—ironic given that they’ve been encouraged to do so by the family goat Black Phillip (a rather scary critter in his own right).
Needless to say, things do not go well for this cursèd Puritan family.
Baleful and brooding, The Witch (stylized as The VVitch, which is fun to say at least) evokes plenty of discomfort. It’s unhappy and eerie and tense… and doesn’t tip its hand. Most of all it succeeds by delivering up encroaching menace with a mysterious disregard for audience expectations.
(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth