(US/Brazil/UK/Canada - 2016)
Written and directed by Robert Eggers. Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings. (R, 92 mins)
The slowest of slow burners, THE WITCH immediately establishes debuting writer/director Robert Eggers as an extraordinarily promising new voice in cinema. A painstakingly executed 17th century period piece in which Eggers based part of his script on actual diaries and testimonies from the era, THE WITCH is the best horror film to come down the pike since THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS, with Eggers masterfully cranking the dread-soaked tension until your stomach is in knots. Almost immediately after the the fade-in, the feeling of doom and despair quickly goes from palpable to overwhelming. Banished from their village for reasons the script never specifies--the film, subtitled "A New England Folktale," is a case study in presenting literal horrors surrounded by a much larger sense of ambiguity--a devoutly religious Puritan family is forced to make it on their own as they travel a distance to settle on the edge of a dark, vast woods. Patriarch William (busy British TV actor Ralph Ineson, best known to American audiences as David Brent's obnoxious pal Finchy on the original UK version of THE OFFICE and as Dagmer Cleftjaw on GAME OF THRONES) and wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, GAME OF THRONES' insane Lysa Arryn) have five children: eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is on the verge of womanhood; eldest son Caleb (the awesomely-named Harvey Scrimshaw) is just entering puberty and can't stop stealing curious glances at Thomasin's blossoming cleavage; younger twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) sing, play, and engage in mischief, spending a lot of time talking to Black Philip, the family goat; and infant Samuel. Not long after establishing their new home, Samuel seemingly vanishes into thin air as Thomasin covers her face playing peek-a-boo with him. Then the crops start dying. Then Katherine's cherished silver cup belonging to her late father goes missing and she blames Thomasin. There's a logical explanation for the cup's disappearance--William sold it for food and goods that they desperately needed--but the tensions start flaring and paranoia sets in, and the response to everything is to pray harder.
THE TURIN HORSE or Kelly Reichardt's MEEK'S CUTOFF, and the entire aura of THE WITCH is reminiscent of both THE CRUCIBLE reinterpreted as an exercise in Satanic horror and of Avery Crounse's 1983 film EYES OF FIRE, a low-budget, rustic-looking 18th century colonial period piece that has a small but very devoted following today (it's surprising that no one's resurrected it on Blu-ray by now). Other than Ineson and Dickie, who aren't exactly household names in the US, and a brief early appearance by Canadian cult actor Julian Richings (CUBE) as the village elder who orders the family exiled, the cast is populated by unknowns, which only makes their performances that much more gritty and utterly believable. Ineson and Dickie are superb, and Scrimshaw has one haunting moment that he plays to absolute perfection, but this should be a starmaker of a performance by Taylor-Joy, who's dragged through the ringer and required to run the gamut of emotions throughout.