THE WITCH, horror, rated R, Regal Stadium 14; Violet Crown; DreamCatcher, 2.5 chiles
William (Ralph Ineson), a recent arrival from England, and his family find themselves banished to the edge of a dark wood outside a Puritan New England village early in the 17th century. The banishment is for an unnamed offense William has committed against the church, which, given the direction the movie takes, one can guess has something to do with blasphemy. While the family struggles to reap a harvest before the onset of winter, their infant son Sam is abducted, presumed to have been carried off by a wolf — but in time, it becomes clear that something more sinister is in the works. The film focuses on Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest daughter, who was with the child when he vanished in a brief instant while Thomasin’s eyes were closed. Thomasin comes under suspicion from her mother Katherine ( Game of Thrones’ Kate Dickie), who blames the girl and treats her harshly. When William trades Katherine’s silver cup for traps to catch the “wolf,” Katherine blames Thomasin for the theft — and William says nothing, at first. Two younger siblings, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), spend much of the film playing with Black Phillip, the family’s sinister-looking horned goat. Mercy thinks Sam was carried off by a witch, and when Thomasin teases her, claiming to be that very witch, Mercy believes her sister. As events grow more ominous, the family realizes it’s not just their lives that are at stake, but their souls.
The Witch is a great-looking film, set in an appropriately stark, dreary landscape, and drawing on authentic New England folk tales, according to director Robert Eggers. It’s a welcome return to village horror, a subgenre that was popular in the 1960s and ’ 70s with films like The City of
the Dead (1960) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). But in The Witch, uneven pacing, stilted dialogue, and mumbled lines make for a lackluster affair. Although Eggers’ film is mostly free of jump scares, its many sudden bursts of loud music have the same effect. The film’s best moments occur around the midway point, when Thomasin and her brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) go early one morning to check on the traps set in the woods and Caleb, like Sam, also vanishes. He eventually stumbles home, battered and sick with fever. Scrimshaw’s phenomenal performance as the stricken young Caleb is convincing and gut-wrenching in its horror. He’s the best thing in The Witch, which does contain some fine acting, particularly from Ineson and Dickie. But long, quiet moments are interspersed with the more frightening ones, often bringing whatever tension has been ratcheting up to a grinding halt. The climax presents us with a phantasmagoric series of images, but the payoff, hinted at from the start, is entirely too expected.
Getting a wild hare: Anya Taylor-Joy