Atmospheric and archaic, “The Witch” is a bold take on the horror genre that’s both quite old and disturbingly new.
Set in 1630 New England against a backdrop of Puritans fresh off the boat from England, it’s about a hyper-religious family that stakes its claim in a remote stretch of forest only to experience disturbances they ascribe to satanic forces. One of the beauties of writer/director Robert Eggers’ approach, who makes his feature film debut, is that he leaves their state deliberately open to interpretation -- at least for a time.
At first, we think it’s all in the heads of these superstitious people, who cast suspicion on each other for what’s happening to them. The family believes in the literal truth of every word in the Bible, so the idea of the Devil appearing to enlist them or witches trolling the forest is viewed as entirely plausible. We see how pliable they are, and understand how the Salem witch trials came to be.
But eventually it becomes clear that just because the siblings accuse each other of being witches to deflect blame doesn’t mean there really isn’t an old hag off brewing spells.
Things go bad early when the baby boy Samuel is snatched out of the care of the oldest daughter, Thomasin, literally while her eyes are closed during a game of peek-a-boo. Played by the luminous Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomasin shoulders much of the burden for caring for the younger children -- not to mention the quiet, inexplicable ire of her mother, Katherine (Katie Dickie).
After days of searching, they give up the infant’s fate. The father, William (Ralph Ineson), blames a wolf rather than believe Thomasin’s supernatural tale of sudden vanishing. But then eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) disappears, too, and the tykes, Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) seem to share a fey commune with the alpha goat, whom they dub Black Philip.
But it’s really Thomasin’s story, as we see everything through her eyes. We understand her resentment at such a cloistered life, her yearning for a wider world and even her attempts to cast blame elsewhere. She’s good, but not pure, because no one is.
With its perpetually gray skies and earthy backgrounds, the film is virtually monochromatic except for Thomasin’s golden hair -- and the inevitable blobs of blood that come drip, drip, dripping into the frame.