YE OLDE PSYCHODRAMA

10.02.15 2:00 AM ET

The Puritanical Horror of ‘The Witch’

An obedient blond beauty on the brink of womanhood anchors Robert Eggers’s 17th-century tale of pious pilgrims and black magic paranoia.

A stifling sense of dread hangs like fog over the gray New England skies of The Witch, the satanic thriller set in Ye Olde America that wowed Sundance in January. Billed as a “New-England folk tale,” it scores a rare horror movie coup: leaving you with a spooky thrill that lingers.

After racking up film festival plaudits all year, writer-director Robert Eggers’s well-crafted 17th-century tale of pious pilgrims and black magic paranoia played this week for horror diehards at Fantastic Fest, where it rose above the schlock with its distinct, deliberate art-house flair.

Set for a February 2016 debut from the distributor of Spring Breakers, The Witch is one of several recent genre standouts to emerge from the indie-art cinema crowd to chill audiences with more than forgettable gore and cheap jump scares. (Also see: It Follows, Goodnight Mommy, and Green Room).

The Witch also makes exceptional use of a seldom-tapped Puritanical setting to build riveting, slow-burn terror. Think The Crucible meets The Shining, seen through the eyes of a teenage girl wrestling to resolve her rigid religious upbringing with her burgeoning sexuality. Unfolding in an unforgiving land on the border between known society and unknown wilderness, it’s no accident that the film takes place three decades before dozens of women were executed in the Salem Witch Trials.

Creeping anxiety first sets in early as devout Christian settlers William (Game of Thrones’ Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) are exiled from their plantation commune over their extreme ascetic religious views and forced to move their five children to a farm on the edge of civilization, circa 1630.

The upheaval is witnessed quietly by their eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), an obedient blond beauty on the brink of womanhood. As The Witch opens, Thomasin is starting to come of age, tasked with caretaking for her siblings and subtly feeling the first flushes of a new sensuality that her pre-pubescent brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), at least, has begun to notice.

There’s hardly time to wrestle with the fire-and-brimstone fear of sin when unexplainable acts start creeping into the family’s life. Crops are failing. Objects disappear. In an unforgettably effective moment of terror, it’s Thomasin’s face we watch as she plays a game of peek-a-boo with her infant brother—only to open her eyes to discover that he’s vanished without a trace.

A big, bad wolf must have snatched the baby, Thomasin’s grieving parents suspect. Wracked with guilt, she has her doubts. Nightmarish visions take us deeper into the woods, where a hag grinding body parts into a bloody salve writhes naked in the moonlight, but the film plays coy with its ambiguous revelations. Did a wolf snatch baby Samuel from under Thomasin’s watchful eye, or was it the witch of the woods, she wonders?

There is a third possibility: Thomasin has danced with the devil herself, as her siblings bitterly accuse. Animal or supernatural, it doesn’t matter: William’s dogged religious austerity and Katherine’s inconsolable resentment pose a more immediate threat to their own daughter. When her bratty younger twin siblings piss Thomasin off, she tells a tale to frighten them, only to see it blow up in her face. And when her beloved brother Caleb goes missing in the wooded expanses behind their farm, irrational emotions fueled by the family’s fervent fundamentalist views lead all blame to turn squarely on Thomasina, sparking the deadliest turn imaginable for a young 17th-century woman.

Casting British character actors Ineson and Dickie as the austere if well-intentioned parents, Eggers anchored the film’s micro-morality parable in a pair of terrifically craggy-faced thesps. Whether or not there is a witch in The Witch is an intentionally ambiguous play Eggers makes in his ye olde psychodrama, meticulously researched for years and staged in painstaking period detail by the former production designer turned writer-director.

The debut film of New Hampshire native Eggers expertly manipulates the line between paranoia and fantasy in this isolated, unforgiving homestead on the edge of the woods. Every member of the family, down to its two spoiled youngest twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), has a part to play in the symphony of hysteria-false accusations that leads into The Witch’s virtuoso last third.

The real discovery here is British actress Anya Taylor-Joy, whose open expressiveness is all the more marvelous when she’s forced to go from pious obedience to desperate self-preservation to orgiastic release, in The Witch’s unnerving conclusion in which an unlikely character hisses, “Do you want to live deliciously?”  

Well, who wouldn’t?