“The Witch” is not the movie to see if you want to be scared in a fun, Friday-night-date sort of way. It’s the movie to see if you want to be deeply unsettled — not momentarily rattled by ghosts lurking in shadows or killers popping out of closets, but profoundly unnerved by dark philosophy. First-time writer-director Robert Eggers finds his horror in ideas more than in deeds (though there are some nasty deeds, too).
Set in New England around 1630, this quietly (and then very loudly) disturbing folktale has its dour Puritan characters speaking in King James’ English (“Wilt thou not help thy father?” is a casual thing for a dad to say to his boy) and spending most of their time frowning. At the outset, this family is exiled from their Puritan settlement over a theological disagreement between the father, William (Ralph Ineson), and the church leaders. The details are fuzzy, but it seems William is too piously strict even for the Puritans. He and his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), take their children off into the wilderness and build a new home in isolation near a gloomy forest.
Before the movie is 10 minutes old, the family’s infant son has disappeared and Eggers has treated us to a shocking glimpse of what must be the title character, in a dank cottage in the woods, doing unspeakable things. It’s a brief but chilling sequence, and it pre-answers (for us) the question that will soon arise within the family of whether there are sinister forces working against them, or whether their ill fortune is the result of sin.
As Puritan extremists, they are all prone to feeling guilt. Katherine, dazed by the loss of the baby, prays and weeps constantly. The eldest child, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), an adolescent teen, is introduced to us in prayer, begging forgiveness for thinking about breaking the commandments. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), a few years younger, averts his eyes when he notices his sister’s cleavage, and frets about the status of his dead baby brother’s eternal soul. He gets no comfort from religion, either. His father tells him no one but God knows who will be saved and who will be damned, and the way he describes it, it sounds pretty random. The only happy people are the twins, Jonas and Mercy, who are about 5 years old and spend their days singing songs to one of the family’s goats.
Things soon get worse. The crops start to fail. William causes discord with a small lie that has far-reaching consequences. Katherine mistrusts Thomasin, who was tending the baby when it disappeared. Caleb goes hunting in the woods, where nothing good ever happens. And at all times, everyone is afraid that they will offend God — or worse, already have.
Though the film has some sequences of terror and some haunting sights, it’s not an action-oriented story. The pervading eeriness comes more from the general tone, the sense of rising despair and urgency as the family is unraveled by fear and accusations. This doesn’t have the plot structure of a typical horror film, and the 17th-century language makes it harder to follow than, say, “Paranormal Activity.” (That’s not a complaint, just an observation.) It’s what you’d call an “art-house” horror film, in that it emphasizes mood and character over jolts.
This constant, steady build-up makes the last 20 minutes of the movie — when things come to a head in a nightmarish cavalcade of evil — all the more horrifying. It reminds me, to a lesser degree, of another sinister-feeling horror film with religious undertones: “Kill List.” “The Witch” isn’t nearly as effed-up, but it has a similar creeping darkness, leaving you with the sense that you’ve taken a harrowing ride through hell and gotten some of it on you.
A- (1 hr., 32 min.; )