The Witch takes place in 17th Century New England, but the film's tone and use of subtext hearkens back to the subtle horror films of the late 1960s and 70s, especially Stanley Kubrick's version of The Shining, Roman Polanski's Repulsion, and Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Horror fans expecting a contemporary gorefest based on the Salem witch hunts and laden with CGI effects will be severely disappointed. For everyone else, Robert Eggers' film provides a lot to chew on, especially for those who enjoy deconstructing the genre's films as a means of exploring the cultural fears and anxieties from which they arise.
The plot is about the only straightforward aspect of the Egger's story: an extremely proud and pious Christian man leads his family out into the woods to fend for themselves rather than live under terms set forth by the settlement's Puritan leaders. With his dutiful wife and five children in tow, he attempts to carve out a living for the family from the land. It doesn't go well -- nature doesn't cooperate, nor does God intercede on the family's behalf once a witch from the surrounding wood starts meddling in their affairs, and it doesn't take long for the family members to turn against one another. Shot to emphasize the atmospheric solitude of their isolation and magnify its resulting claustrophobia and dread, the patriarch has unwittingly delivered his family into a forested version of hell and the only way out is for him to swallow his pride and return to the settlement for help. Despite the wife's pleas and the disappearances of two of their children, that's an idea his pride can't abide, even as the family's plight grows increasingly dire.
Director/writer Eggers and his crew draw an increasingly taut noose around the family's circumstances and the results elevate the tension accordingly, relying more on skillfully rendered touches in place of familiar horror clichés. The cast is splendid, especially Anya Taylor-Joy as the eldest child and Ralph Ineson. As for the titular character, there is one (and perhaps more), though the reality of their existence in the story depends on what the viewer brings to it. A reasonable case can be made against the presence of the supernatural in the same way readers may debate whether there are truly any ghosts present in Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. I don't believe there are "real" supernatural presences in either tale, but on that score the film might benefit from a second viewing.
However, The Witch's truest pleasures might be found in watching it as an allegory about the modern family on the far right extreme on the American political spectrum -- the Trump and Cruz supporters who see pernicious evil lurking behind everything, cut-off from the mainstream by choice, whose ignorance and pride result in isolation and hardship, and in seeking to stem the tide unwittingly create their own undoing.
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