Robert Eggers' The Witch is a reminder that horror's essence is patience that moviegoers are trained to not have.
This is a creep show of nearly pedestrian dread, not making viewers jump out of their seats but sink deep into them, retreating from a malignant force building on the screen — not a monster or slasher but the movie itself.
A less rational person might call The Witch and its pagan vibe blasphemous, even evil. It certainly left me feeling uneasy, as happened only once before, watching the 1922 silent film Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, that practically scared me to church. Each movie toys with our tolerance for the occult, like a Ouija board played just for fun until it spells something superstitious. The Witch isn't evil; it's just perfectly designed to look that way.
Eggers' chilling debut is a small masterpiece of atmosphere, set in 1630 New England and insistent upon staying true to the era. That's a problem with much of Eggers' dialogue, written in old-fashioned English syntax and spoken in unintelligibly accented murmurs. His imagery, however, conveys plenty about the Puritan psyche and a family cursed with it, driven to madness and beyond. The Witch could work just as well as a silent, like Haxan, and practically does.
Puritan law makes outcasts of William (Ralph Ineson) and his family when The Witch begins, self-exiled after he's charged with blasphemy. William builds a remote farm with his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), preteen Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson).
Strange occurrences begin — failing crops, bloody goat's milk, a missing infant. Perhaps William did offend his god, and not only by whatever the villagers claim he did. Much is insinuated about the extent of William's relationship with Thomasin, who in turn is drawing curious glances from pubescent Caleb. The twins are odd by nature, looking like members of Tod Browning's Freaks show, living to torment Thomasin.
Eggers accumulates tension one unsettling sight at a time, in a cinema verite style that, of course, didn't exist in 1630. This movie could almost convince that it did. No sudden shocks or sonic stings, just low-key terror.
The filmmaker also has a tremendously committed cast on his side, of which two members are headed for bigger things fast. Taylor-Joy is a major find, a pure beauty effortlessly underplaying Thomasin's suspicions, shame and eventual release. Ineson's haunting countenance is the stuff of nightmares, his gruff rumble ready for any villain role offered. False notes are few in The Witch, making Eggers' pseudo-documentary approach more convincing.
The Witch is a game-changer along the lines of The Blair Witch Project, a stripped-down approach to horror that doesn't depend on bogeymen or blood gushers, just macabre surrealism. Eggers is a more patient filmmaker than the big time he's about to join.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.