There are confident first features, and there’s 'The Witch', the exhilaratingly scary debut in which American writer-director Robert Eggers tramples over the cowardice of the genre he’s just grabbed by the throat. Reverentially adapted from a ghoulish piece of Puritan folklore (much of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from seventeenth-century documents), 'The Witch' is one of the most genuinely unnerving horror films in recent memory because Eggers has the guts to earn your fear.
A family of fundamentalist pilgrims is banished from their walled New England settlement as punishment for an undefined conflict. They're forced to resettle in a grey stretch of field that lies on the edge of some truly sinister woods. Fresh off the boat from England and already outcasts in their adopted country, William the woodcutter (Ralph Ineson) leads his wife (Kate Dickie) and five children to the rotten clearing where they will begin again, isolated in their struggle against the elements, a fallow harvest and – most urgent of all – the paralysing grip of their supposed sins. Before William’s brood can get comfortable and re-establish a link with the Lord, their newborn is snatched into the forest with supernatural speed.
In most films, this would be the beginning of a coy flirtation with the audience, the monster remaining masked by shadows and cacophonous jolts until a grand finale arrives. Yes, there are a few jump-scares – and they’re calculated with the precision of a Swiss watch – but 'The Witch' understands that there’s a big difference between getting under your skin and wearing you. Not only does Eggers show the creature that has stolen the baby, you watch as she pestles it into mortar, the scene typifying the film’s painterly morbidness as the light transforms the nude witch’s wrinkled flesh into an early American riff on Goya’s 'Saturn Devouring His Son'. A former production designer who can clearly work miracles on a low budget, Eggers puts just enough cards on the table that you know what he’s capable of, even though his best tricks remain firmly tucked inside his sleeve.
The film soon forms an unholy union between the rigid austerity of Stanley Kubrick and the psychosexual conviction of Nicolas Roeg. Ineson and Dickie are wrenching as flawed (and even useless) parents whose love for their children is diluted by their fear of everything else. Harvey Scrimshaw gives a possessed performance as the eldest son, and Anya Taylor-Joy is revelatory as his pubescent older sister, whose body bubbles and leaks like the devil is wringing her mid-section.
Eggers keeps things tight and intimate, and so fluently invites the all-consuming religious fervour to commune with his monster that new themes emerges with every sight and utterance ('Did ye make some unholy bond with that goat!?'). 'The Witch' is careful to invite certain ambiguities and avoid others, but the judgment it passes on its characters does not come from on high. Eggers prefers instead to ruminate on how the compulsion to live without sin might grease the wheels for it. 'The Witch' is a major horror event on par with recent sensations like 'Kill List' and 'The Babadook'. Haunting doesn’t even begin to describe it.