The typical horror movie can be labeled a success if it manages to jolt you a couple of times, and get the hairs on the back of your neck up here and there.
But “The Witch” works in less visceral, more cerebral ways.And it manages to be deeply disturbing as it does.
Writer/director Robert Eggers’ debut feature convincingly takes us back to Puritan New England and makes one religious, superstitious family confront the unknown.
That unknown is witchcraft, a grasping explanation for that which these colonists cannot explain.
In 1630s Massachusetts, a pious, contrarian farmer (Ralph Ineson) runs afoul of the theocracy in charge of the place and moves his family from the semi-safe comforts of town into the woods.
“We will conquer this wilderness,” he prophesies. “It will not consume us.”
He and his teen daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy) and tweenage son, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) are just gathering up their first crop, nearly finished with the thatched-roof barn and pen for their goats and horse when tragedy strikes.
Tomasin (Taylor-Joy) loses the new baby in the family in the middle of a game of peek-a-boo. Katherine, their mother (Kate Dickie) is bereft, weeping and lashing out.
“What is amiss on this farm? It’s not natural!”
A wolf got the kid? The daughter did something with him? Mom has another answer — the son has hit puberty and has taken an unhealthy interest in his older sister’s decolletage. Daughter Tomasin is in league with the Devil. She’s a witch!
William, the father, struggles to go on, to paper over the tragedy and the rift it causes in the family. He chops wood. Lots of it. As penance? He orders the mouthy younger twins, Jonas and Mercy, around. And he takes Caleb out hunting. But they get separated.
Eggers uses his effects sparingly. There are no shaky cameras to clutter up his meticulous colonial settings or characters. We catch a hint of the depravity witches might visit on a baby, the nature-loving nudity of these woodland monsters, and see animals and children possessed.
All of this is bent on casting the family’s suspicion at Tomasin, given a “You cannot be SERIOUS” sense of fear and outrage by Taylor-Joy. Young Scrimshaw, playing a child whose only reference to what has befallen him is a short life of religious indoctrination, has beatific moments of deranged clarity.
Dickie carries grief to new heights.
And veteran British actor Ineson (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) ably captures the confusion of a man whose limited view of the world gives him an understanding of what is happening but a wholly inadequate response to it.
“We have been ungrateful of God’s love!”
It’s not edge-of-your-seat alarming and its jolts are more creepy than shocking. But for all its period detail and head games, “Witch” works on the most primitive level. Put children in jeopardy, have the adults be ineffectual at confronting it, and let the audience know something that the family can only suspect — that they are dealing with supernatural evil, and that their worst fears don’t come close to imagining what awaits them.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity
Running time: 1:30