Writer: Robert Eggers
Cast: Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Harvey Scrimshaw, Lucas Dawson, Ellie Grainger
Running time: 90mins
The lowdown: Joining It Follows and The Babadook as one of the great horrors of recent years, The Witch is a sensational debut from director Robert Eggers. In 17th century New England, a family are banished from their devoutly religious plantation. Isolated on a small farm, they seem to be the targets of witchcraft when their youngest vanishes. But, as they begin to suspect each other, how much is hysteria? Dripping with a malevolent atmosphere, this is how horror movies seemed when you were too young to watch them.
The full verdict: Vividly depicting an age when lives were governed by religion, superstition and suspicion, The Witch announces Robert Eggers as a major new voice in horror.
Not permitting an ounce of fat on the ninety minute running time, the writer/director wastes no time exiling his family – William (Ineson), Katherine (Dickie), and five children including their late teen daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) and younger son Caleb (Scrimshaw) – from a communal plantation for William’s excessive pride.
Settling a day’s ride away on a small farm beside dark woods, little tranquility is permitted before the family baby is snatched during an oddly creepy game of peek-a-boo with Thomasin.
Believing a wolf to have taken the child, the family attempt to carry on. But, as the crops fail and hunger bites, grief turns to anger and children’s bickering shifts to accusations of devilry. And the film does not flinch from depicting the subsequent implosion of fear and paranoia.
Even the dialogue, a rich brew of portentous Biblical English (some taken from transcripts of witch trials), is unnerving, with the often invoked Lord providing little solace and much oppression.
Eggers also knows when to slip in background character detail that colours preceding events a darker hue.
Avoiding staginess, as a director he keeps the visuals funereal with a sky the colour of grey twilight whatever time of day, or an inky black at night.
And in the darkness a torrent of bizarre images are unleashed, snatched from stories of black magic and fairy tales, transforming everyday animals into agents of corruption.
The soundtrack offers no respite, ominous rustling foreshadowing the nightmares, and Mark Korven’s string score is the sound of demons’ laughter.
The cast uniformly rise to the challenges of the intense film. Ineson is astonishing as the conflicted patriarch, and Dickie equally impressive as the fearful, emotionally scarred wife.
But, Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw are the revelations as children plagued with doubt, curiosity and sexual awakening in a place where any of those could be seen as devil’s work.
Perfectly riding a knife edge of ambiguity, what is religious hysteria and what could be real is a guessing game sustained until the memorable climax.
Up there with Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Witch is a movie for which only 5 infernal red stars will do.