‘The Witch’ Brews an Unsettling Concoction of Paranoia

Photo Courtesy of Parts and Labor, Rooks Nest Entertainment and RT Features

Horror movies belong to an unfairly maligned genre, as the countless number of poorly-made slasher flicks released each year have led many to dismiss scary movies as inherently disposable: vehicles of cheap thrills whose effect is only fleeting.

But on a conceptual level, horror films share the same level of artistic potential as any other movie genre, and many directors have created scary movies worthy of critical discussion which will endure forever.

The great auteur Stanley Kubrick created a great horror film by avoiding the conventions of the genre in 1980’s “The Shining,” while fellow cinematic giants like John Carpenter and Wes Craven elicited screams from audiences by establishing what would soon become tropes in their early works and then toying with them in later films.

“The Witch: A New England Folktale” represents the feature-length film debut of director Robert Eggers, a man whose brief filmography reveals an intense interest in the macabre; he’s directed an adaptation of  Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” as well as his own interpretation of “Hansel and Gretel.”

Eggers’ latest project is a spiritual descendant of Kubrick’s “The Shining.” A haunting tale of a family in isolation, the bleak film manages to be dispassionately voyeuristic while maintaining a sense of immediate danger throughout its snappy 90-minute runtime.

Ralph Ineson, a British actor best known for his work on television, stars as William, the head of a Puritan clan expelled from their rural community for reasons unclear – although audiences are meant to infer William’s religious zealotry is the cause for his and his family’s dismissal.

Moving deep into the untamed forests of 17th-century New England, William, his wife Katherine (Game of Thrones’ Kate Dickie) and their five children erect a humble cabin in a clearing, and attempt to eke out a living through the harvest of a meager patch of corn. But tragedy soon strikes: the newborn baby Samuel is snatched from eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) by the film’s titular monster, and his disappearance ignites a series of events which lead to the inevitable destruction of the family.

The film’s witch is a shadowy force seldom seen, although her presence is constantly felt by the audience; one suspects she is lurking somewhere within each scene, hidden from the characters’ line of sight. She manifests in many forms, appearing as an aged crone in some scenes, and as a seductive young woman in others.

“The Witch” is deeply disturbing filmmaking which showcases the talents of an up-and-coming auteur of considerable talent. Through his use of traditional stories and period texts, Eggers grants audiences a primal experience filled with eldritch horror.