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A Banished Family Fights Its Demons In A Puritanical Age

A New England family in the 1630s struggles against evils it can't quite identify in The Witch. Courtesy of A24 Films hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of A24 Films

A New England family in the 1630s struggles against evils it can't quite identify in The Witch.

Courtesy of A24 Films

Along with recent sensations like The Babadook and It Follows, Robert Eggers' debut feature The Witch immediately joins the pantheon of great horror movies, with the caveat that it's just barely a horror movie at all. The three films, all rich in metaphor, are effective for their common association with primal fears: of motherhood (The Babadook), of sex (It Follows), and of a vengeful or possibly nonpresent God (The Witch). But of the trio, The Witch is the least inclined to play by the genre rules. Its terrors have more to do with ambience than shocks, arising from the harsh realities of a 17th century Pilgrim homestead where The New World is infertile and the prayers of the righteous go unanswered. In many respects, it takes place in the same punishing ascetic realms as austere Euro-classics like Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light or Carl Dreyer's Ordet. Only the steady assertion of the supernatural qualifies it as horror.

Set in the perpetual gray-black of New England in the mid-1600s, The Witch mixes history and folklore to re-create the atmosphere of extreme religious fervor and paranoia that would lead to the Salem witch trials a few decades later. It opens with a family exiled from a village on spiritual grounds and forced to lead a purer life on a farm far removed from civilization. There's no way to know precisely what brought them to America or the conditions they left behind, but it's safe to say that they've never been in a place where their ideals have found purchase — not in England, not among the other Pilgrims, and certainly not in this godforsaken plot along the edge of the forest. They're committed to a hard life and reap what they sow.

After their banishment from Pilgrim society, William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), hastily retreat to a distant clearing, where they set up a modest home with their five children. The eldest, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is curious and self-possessed, and some distance in age from her siblings, including her skittish younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), a creepy set of twins, and an infant boy. One day, when Thomasin is outside playing peekaboo with the baby, the child simply disappears when she opens her eyes — too fast for a "who" to have taken him, but it opens the doors for a "what." William and Katherine fear God's judgment, of course, but they naturally suspect that Thomasin, the last person to see the baby, may have some responsibility as well. Plus the forest looms. And there's something oddly menacing about their goat, Black Phillip.

The audience knows more about what's happening than the family — or does it? The infant has met a gruesome fate in the woods, but the same paranoia that seizes the family seeps through the screen, too, making us question what the true source of evil might be. The Witch eventually arrives at an answer, but the brilliance of Eggers' vision is how thoroughly the fantasy of an otherworldly menace merges with the reality of living under horrible duress. Faith has brought the characters to this distant outpost, but they've never known any reward for it and seem to embrace the burdens of shame and guilt that dictate their everyday lives. Thomasin — a name that cannot be spelled without "sin" — seems guilty as much for her relative openness to the world as her proximity to the baby when it disappeared.

The Witch has been described as a cross between The Crucible and The Shining, and it's poised right in the center of those influences — half a drama of religious hysteria, half a horror film about a family in isolation. Eggers stages sequences of bone-chilling tension and dread, but never at the expense of the larger spiritual mystery, which hangs over the proceedings like a damp New England mist. Eggers' comprehensive attention to detail — from the formalities of language to the handwoven garments to the exact type of wood that would be used to construct the farm — has the overall effect of transporting you back to a time and place where America's puritanical ideals took root. The Witch imagines the atmosphere that made the Salem witch trials possible — and other American witch trials after that.

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