The Witch poster

Robert Eggers’s feature directorial debut, The Witch, is something of a throwback in more than one way. Its Puritan New England period setting harkens back to the wave of European witch hunting horror films of the ’60s and ’70s. Its, ahem, measured pace and relative lack of gore set it apart from many of its contemporaries. And, its tightly controlled visuals and prominent score give the proceedings an auteurial quality not generally seen in today’s horror genre. These elements combine to produce an impressive mood, but, sadly, the net result is less than entertaining.

When William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) are banished from their settlement due to a religious disagreement, they homestead a farm with their five children in isolated country. The lid on the supernatural is lifted relatively early when Katherine and William’s newborn son is snatched away by a witch in the nearby woods. Eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is blamed by her mother for the loss, as she was playing with the baby at the time. Tension grows within the family as William fails both at harvesting a crop and hunting, spending much of his time building a mountain of firewood. A turning point is reached when Thomasin threatens one of her younger siblings by pretending to be a witch, setting the stage for mistrust and accusation that leaves the family vulnerable to a renewal of supernatural activity.

The Witch Thomasin

A note at the end of the film states that events and even dialogue are drawn from historical accounts. The Witch‘s setting and sense of place are certainly among its strong suits, and Eggers and his small cast are successful at creating a believable feeling of dread. The film recreates at least some of the well-documented paranoia and fear of the New England witch trials, and also delves a little deeper into the folklore surrounding witches themselves, with a title card describing it as a New England folktale.

The film’s chief, and ultimately damning, flaw is that it provides nothing to lighten the oppressive bleakness of the family’s situation. The Witch starts darkly, proceeds darkly, and ends darkly. Eggers’s direction and script work hand-in-hand very effectively, but one cannot help but wonder whether just a little lightness might have made the film more effective, especially while getting to know the characters during the dour first act. A friend once described boredom at the mono-emotional quality of an opera, and that may be the end result for many viewers of The Witch. Its slow burn makes the film unlikely to click beyond a small audience fascinated by its setting and atmosphere.

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UGeek Rating: 4/10