-A tense and nasty art-house horror that builds tension like a Jenga Set.

Maybe it’s not normal to allow a religiously sub-texted horror flick to really scare you, but The Witch ends up being one of the scariest films of recent memory because of its religious motif. In a much-too-grey Massachusetts, there are a family’s property and the scary woods that remind one very much of ‘The Forbidden Forest’ from Harry Potter that act as a border for where our characters are allowed to go. It’s a film that’s both sprawling and claustrophobic in nature, there are plenty of wide shots, showcasing the wonderful scenery of the vintage America that director Robert Eggers has created, but also confining his characters (four of the mains are children) to the depressing, small farm that they live on.

Our main family, comprised of two fanatically Puritan parents: Dad (an excellent Ralph Ineson) and Mom (Kate Dickie), with an eldest daughter going through puberty, who’s also our lead, named Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and two young twins named Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson). They are recently excommunicated from their formerly profitable plantation with other Christian families due to the extremist nature of the father and his conceited nature. They relocate to a very rural plot of land where they keep their chickens, goats, and try to grow corn despite the rugged landscape. During the relocation, the mother is pregnant with her fifth child.

Months later, Thomasin is watching over the baby, named Samuel, on the now built-up farm and he disappears. We see the outline of a hooded figure running through the woods with him, and we realize that beyond the border of the woods, there lives a witch. I will not spoil what she does, or how she goes about haunting this family, but it cuts you deep to the core when you see a family with no means struggle through a very tough, yet tasteful adversity.

We’ve seen it before, right? There’s always the issue of satanic possessions and devil worshiping in these kinds of horror films, but what The Witch does that’s special is related to the way the family reacts to the adversity, and how the witch’s character does it. Director Eggers has stated that he used a ton of literature, both real and fictional, to create a situation where we don’t really know whether its paranoia or really witchcraft. The imagery is very disturbing, but is it real?

Many people use the term “slow-burn” as fancy talk for “I was bored but I respected what I was watching.” I’m going to use ‘slow-burn’ and really mean it in the sense that I appreciated the subtlety of crafting this horror film. Some scenes are amazingly suspenseful, and there’s no jump scare or anything at the end to dissipate. You could spend almost 2 hours watching this through splayed fingers but never actually jump, only shutter from how cold and frankly, screwed, this family and their situation is.

The temptation of the Devil for our characters in these movies has become a cliche, when characters learn to live a rich life because of a pact they make with the Dark figure, but picture our characters here, they’re cold, hungry, dirty, and their farm is failing. An issue over a sold heirloom comes up because the family needs money. Then, when the baby goes missing, everyone is at their breaking point. Thomasin is a progressive minded girl who wants to explore herself and the world, but is instead cast into a gender role she doesn’t fit. When she jokes about witchcraft to bully her younger siblings into behaving a certain way, it could have costly implications with a mother who is suspicious of her daughter’s motives and sexuality, plus she was watching Samuel when he disappeared. Then, Caleb has never seen a girl that isn’t his family, presumably. When he stares at his sister, it’s obvious that he wants to understand women as he heads into puberty, so the Witch could certainly hurt him in that respect. Meanwhile, the mother merely wants a United family, and the father to be successful.

Small hints like how ergot has taken over the bad corn (it can cause hallucinations) or whether or not the witch is sacrificing people to create a flying potion remain only in skeptical thinking, but what’s clear is that Anya Taylor-Joy will be a star, and that The Witch is the A24 return to dark, mysterious, calculated, and brutal in their Indie picks, like Enemy or Under the Skin. And, like those two predecessors, I loved The Witch.

 

4.5 stars

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