Review: 'The Witch'

New horror film explores the fears of America's founding fathers—and daughters
PURITAN FEAR: The untamed forests of 1630s Massachusetts are teeming with unknown evils.

It may not be doing Robert Eggers' The Witch a favor to describe it as a terrifying movie. It's a superior, elegantly moody horror film—more substantial than scary. It's executive-produced by the Bay Area's Chris Columbus and his daughter, Eleanor. It depicts 1630s family in colonial Massachusetts turning against itself, as reasonable explanations fade, and the supernatural becomes natural.

It begins with a shunning; a family of six is exiled from the Plimoth Plantation for religious non-conformity. A horse-drawn wagon loads them out of the town and into new pastures.

The refuge lasts a short blissful while, before the crops fail and the family is driven into the forbidding woods to hunt. Minding her baby sister, the young teen Tomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) plays peekaboo—in an old and authentic way, yelling "boo!" at her little sibling each time she uncovers her face. When her eyes are covered for a second, the baby vanishes. Eggers cuts to a crone's sagging arm, satanically blessing the nude baby with a knife.

The pious but rational father William (Ralph Ineson) believes a wolf snatched his child. He deals with the sorrow of his grieving spouse, the thin-faced Katherine (Kate Dickey). Omens of trouble multiply. When William and his eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) go hunting, they see an unafraid wild rabbit standing its ground, like a rutting March Hare seen in October.

Tensions increase. Tomasin is bidden to help her father undress after he takes a tumble into the dunghill. While she washes her father's clothes by the creek, Tomasin's younger brother, Caleb, glances at his sister's budding breasts. "Come hither," Tomasin says, inviting him to rest his head. After meeting a red-cloaked woman in the woods, Caleb returns to the farm, just as his father marvels: "Pale as death, naked as sin and witched."

The photography is pale as death, too, something like the uncanny livid tints of red-shifted Eastmancolor. Against this muted palette, fresh blood pops out of the screen. Eggers has an eye for the past. He takes an elegantly simple approach to his compositions. Some scenes recall Georges de la Tour paintings, with candlelight illumination; there's solid three-point construction in the scenes of the family united by the hearth. It's as tangible a past as you see in Terrence Malick.

And as in Malick, you're left with questions. When the crops fail, is that poisonous ergot on the blighted corn, causing witchy hallucinations? What a surprise it must have been, to a couple so plain, to have a daughter as golden as Tomasin, with such very wide-apart eyes, such sharp twin peaks of her upper lip. She grows more uncanny, more rebellious as the family's misfortunes increase. Maybe "witch" is just another word for a woman who tells a patriarch what he doesn't want to hear. Tomasin's paleness sets off a strikingly sinister goat named "Black Phillip"—he's on the poster in profile, looking as tenebrous as an engraving by Barry Moser.

It takes skill to make a seemingly innocuous barnyard critter so devilish. People have tried this gambit elsewhere, as in the shot in the William Shatner-starring, Big Sur-set howler, Incubus (1966). But it works here.

One warning: It's said that an English speaker of today, travelling back in time, could only understand conversations if they went back as far back as the Shakespearean era. Shakespeare hadn't been long dead in 1630, and the script is full of authentic dialogue you strain to understand. The family, from the father on down, also speaks low. (If English subtitling on an English language film is good enough for Ken Loach, maybe it would have been good enough for The Witch.)

Still, it's startling to see a movie with such an appreciation and aesthetic understanding of this too-infrequently filmed era. Comprehending these Puritan times is essential to understanding the ancient poison in our nation's veins. Here is the superstition that takes hold from the far past to the McMartin School trial, and beyond.

The Witch
R; 90 Mins.

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