It’s 1630 and there’s something deeply amiss in the wintry woods of New England. Set 60 years before the infamous witch trials would sweep like hysterical wildfire through the town of Salem, Robert Eggers’ unnervingly moody slice of pilgrim horror (please let this become a new genre!) tells the story of one family of God-fearing colonial English settlers who are tormented and torn asunder by unexplained tragedies. After being excommunicated from their community for their religious obstinance, father (Ralph Ineson), mother (Kate Dickie), and their five children undergo a series of trials that would probably make Job cry “Uncle.” Their infant son vanishes, their crops and livestock wither, and their eldest son disappears into the woods only to return feverish, half-mad, and possibly possesed. Is this God’s retribution or the work of one of Satan’s handmaidens?
With a title like The Witch, you best believe it’s the latter. This isn’t a spoiler. Not really. The image of a cackling old crone bathing in the blood of a newborn in the first few minutes leaves little doubt who’s behind the film’s evil doings. But what makes this chillingly creepy little black-magic folk tale work so beautifully is its evocative sense of time and place (it was shot on a shoestring in Northern Ontario). Well, that and composer Mark Korven’s unsettling soundtrack full of screechy, dissonant strings. Anya Taylor-Joy, who looks like a long-lost, alabaster-complexioned Fanning sister, stands out as the eldest child, Tomasin. Her budding sexuality and wicked sense of humor quickly turn her into an easy scapegoat for the family’s spiralling paranoia and suspicion. But, believe me, these doomed souls have far deeper problems to grapple with than an impertinent daughter. A-