Director Robert Eggers’ sharply unsettling horror feature The Witch unfolds in the wilds of 17th-century New England, a time and locale that evoke colonial hardship, Puritan severity, and occult hysteria. Such connections rustle beneath the film’s purposely drab, naturalistic design to create a setting as cold and pitiless as an Old Testament God. It’s a fitting stage for The Witch’s story, in which a Puritan family is exiled from village to wilderness for unspecified (and unrepentant) doctrinal transgressions. Pious patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) is resolved to raise a homestead for his clan, and for a time they endure, their hopes for the future personified in a newborn son, Samuel. Then an appalling and baffling tragedy occurs, seemingly connected to a sinister presence deep in the nearby woods, prompting the stability of faith and family to abruptly crumble.
The Witch is, above all, a work of mood: Straightaway, it establishes a writhing, scuttling aura of wrongness and doesn’t relent for 90 skin-crawling minutes. Mark Korven’s score of droning, keening ambient noise is vital to this atmosphere, as is Eggers’ facility for transforming prosaic details—the blank stare of a wild hare, for example—into the demonic. The Witch is not a horror story of shocks, but of disruption and transgression. Like Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy, Rob Zombie’s underrated The Lords of Salem, and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, the film relies upon the feverish Christian correlation of the feminine with the Satanic. The Witch embraces such fears earnestly, populating the moonlit night with talking goats and cackling crones. However, what ultimately makes the film so absorbing and haunting is not its rustic folktale terrors, but its potent depiction of a Protestant household—that alleged rock of American life—coming spectacularly undone amid snarls of deception, sorrow, and psychosexual tension.
The Witch opens Friday, February 19 in wide release.