First-time writer/director Robert Eggers’s The Witch bills itself as “a New England folktale,” and there's really no better summary. Written in archaic, ornate English delivered via thick Yorkshire accents, this meticulous horror film tracks the gradual hysteria of a Puritan family cast out from their village thanks to their patriarch’s pride. They live in a tiny cabin on the edge of the woods with only their failing harvest and the meager grace of God to sustain them. When infant Sam disappears (in a single bloodcurdlingly matter-of-fact reverse shot), the fallow homestead becomes a crucible of madness.
Several creative coups conspire to conjure The Witch’s enrapturing spell. DP Jarin Blaschke’s lucid shooting is in the slightly boxy 1.66:1 aspect ratio (look for the thin black bars at the sides of the frame), alternating between leached, hazy gloom and flickering candlelight, providing a formal complement to the claustrophobic dialogue. The sound design weaves composer Mark Korven’s keening, breathtaking avant-classical score (in the vein of Kubrick’s use of Penderecki or Ligeti) between stretches of dead, cold silence to gut-churning effect. The viewer is stranded in this liminal, alien place, here less to understand than to simply bear witness. This is crucial.
I’m hesitant to say The Witch is terrifying, because that seems to devalue it; I’ll watch any old bullshit if it gives me the creeps, and this is galaxies removed from your standard Netflix jump-scare filler. Yet...it is terrifying. The religious fervor is unnerving enough, and the film is smart enough to place us firmly in that worldview rather than look down on it. On top of that, Eggers draws from painstaking historical research to find the root of Halloween kitsch like cackling crones and bubbling cauldrons. In his hands they become abject images of sickening power, like Polaroids snapped in the middle of a nightmare, piling atop one another right up to the ecstatic, guttural conclusion.
The film is necessarily patient, ratcheting up the tension until every frame is soaked in dread; even at a tight 93 minutes it’s an emotional wringer. Both times I've seen it I left the theater shellshocked. What lingers from the best horror films and stories are the moments that are too unsettling, too probing, too raw to brush off; it just so happens that The Witch is nothing but those moments. Beneath its Bergmanesque austerity, the film pulses with quiet anger. The perversely triumphant climax poses an implicit question: if you, too, lived under the unyielding yoke of Puritanism, your womanhood a locus of shame and sin, your life a godless, hopeless procession of gray skies and backbreaking toil, wouldn’t you, too, gladly ascend, writhing, into Satan’s embrace?