'The Witch': Sundance Review

An artfully made, not-very-scary 17th century horror tale 

Robert Eggers' debut is a horror story set in a Puritan New England of nearly 400 years ago.

A genuine curiosity to bubble up from the contemporary American independent film scene, The Witch aims to extract modern horror thrills from a story set in a meticulously re-created Puritan New England of nearly 400 years ago. In the event, the dedication exerted to render the mores, beliefs, speech patterns and way of life among radical Calvinists of the period proves more compelling than does the witchcraft-saturated story, which is pretty short on scares or surprises.

Writer-director Robert Eggers' debut feature impresses on several fronts, notably in the performances, historical feel and visual precision, but the overall effect is relatively subdued and muted, probably too much so for mainstream scare fans. With its novelty value and presumed enthusiastic critical support in some circles, however, cult status and nice returns in smartly judged specialized release look likely.

Beholding the director's carefully judged use of symmetrically framed compositions, focus on children who may be in touch with other realms, carefully gauged naturalistic lighting, eerie classically tinged scoring and outbursts of female hysteria, it comes as no surprise to learn that the two most important influences on Eggers here were Kubrick's The Shining and Bergman's Cries and Whispers; from the former come the visual style and the sense of a place possibly haunted long ago, from the latter the spectacle of incipient madness overtaking women.

Read more Sundance: 5 Hot-Button Docs Set to Make Waves at the Festival

Although the date is never mentioned in the film, press notes fix it as 1630, 10 years prior to the beginning of the action in the most famous piece of relevant literature, The Scarlet Letter, and more than 60 years earlier than the infamous Salem witchcraft trials. Exiled in the opening scene from the Puritan church and community to which they've belonged, evidently over a difference of religious interpretation, a family of seven tries to make a go of it alone on a small farm deep in the wilderness. The straggly haired, bearded father William (Ralph Ineson) is much better at citing scripture than he is at handling animals or a rifle; mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) has a stern demeanor with hysteria bubbling beneath the surface; daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a smart, open-faced blonde on the cusp of pubescence; slightly younger son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is a capable-looking lad who sticks by his father; young'uns Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are an inseparable team; and then there's a newborn.

Suddenly and inexplicably, the baby vanishes. The disappearance is accompanied by obscurely shown nocturnal events, a full moon and dark shots of what looks like a hideous, naked old hag rubbing herself with something disgusting. A search for the infant proves fruitless and William tries to calm his inconsolable wife by stressing how lucky they've been, perhaps a reminder that, at the time, a mortality rate of one in five wasn't at all bad.

Still, the optimistic view doesn't stick. Their situation is plainly grim; on a hunt, the man's gun backfires in his face and he can't even shoot a rabbit, one that then menacingly keeps showing up thereafter. Their corn rations are meager, the trees are becoming bare, Kate's valued silver cup goes missing and Thomasin provokes little Mercy by telling her she's a witch, a gag that soon backfires.

More mysteriously, Caleb comes upon a strange dwelling from which emerges a voluptuous, flame-haired siren who kisses him. Unsurprisingly, he passes out. When he awakens, he's naked and essentially comatose. The family goat now produces blood rather than milk, and 'round-the-bend Mom morosely wishes she had never left England.

So now there are at least three potential witches, although as calamitous events escalate from a trickle to a flood and more Puritans meet their maker, it doesn't seem to much matter who the title character really is. The narrative becomes choppier and murkier as it progresses, but the increase in violence pushes the fright meter only marginally higher. The Witch is nowhere near as scary as what's considered de rigueur on the horror circuit these days, leaving the film in a sort of no man's land between a promising art film and a genuine scare-fest.

Still, Eggers creates a special feel and ambiance in his first feature after a couple of shorts. Shot in the wilds of northern Ontario, Canada, the film succeeds in creating a sense of complete isolation on a farm that looks very handmade, as do the unaffected costumes. The British-accented dialogue, which is filled with "thys" and "thees" and other less frequent forms of archaic address, possesses a credible otherness and a sense of plausible formality and religiosity (Eggers drew upon many period sources for his linguistic formulations). At the same time, the constant reminders of God's dominant presence in these people's lives is neatly undercut by Caleb's unavoidable obsession with catching glimpses of his older sister's emerging physical attributes.

Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke's clean, uncluttered compositions, which are resolutely autumnal in their low light levels, evince dedicated study of the masters. Mark Korven's score employs unusual instrumentation in combining 17th century musical motifs with contemporary electronic sounds to sometimes unnerving dissonant effect.

The casting and performances are also strong. Ineson is very effective as the supposed-to-be-in-command father who quickly loses any ability to protect his family under trying circumstances; Dickie's audible grief morphed into madness deliberately plays like fingernails on a blackboard; Taylor-Joy exhibits great self-possession, if that is the right word in the circumstances, as a would-be young witch; and young Scrimshaw makes Caleb by far the most ingratiating character to be around.

Production companies: Parts and Labor, RT Features, Rooks Nest Entertainment, Maiden Voyage Pictures, Mott Street Pictures
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
Director: Robert Eggers
Screenwriter: Robert Eggers
Producers: Jay VanHoy, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, Daniel Beckerman, Rodrigo Teixeira
Executive producers: Lourenco Sant'Anna, Sophie Mas, Michael Sackler, Julia Godzinskaya, Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus, Alex Sagalchik, Alexandra Johnes, Jonathan Bronfman, Thomas Benski, Lucas Ochoa
Director of photography: Jarin Blaschke
Production designer: Craig Lathrop

Costume designer: Linda Muir
Editor: Louise Ford
Music: Mark Korven
Casting: Kharmel Cochrane, John Buchan, Jason Knight

No rating, 92 minutes