A father and his son, a boy of twelve or so, go into a wood. They are out hunting, armed with a gun. As they walk, they engage in one of those ordinary, man-to-man chats that arise on a country stroll. “Canst thou tell me what thy corrupt nature is?” the father asks. “My corrupt nature is empty of grace, bent unto sin, only unto sin, and that continually,” the lad replies. Clearly, he has learned the words by rote, yet they don’t sound tired or hollow in his mouth; he means them. His next task is to help with the traps that have been laid in the undergrowth. We watch his small hands slowly easing wide the iron jaws.
These scenes are from “The Witch,” a film written and directed by Robert Eggers. The father is William (Ralph Ineson), who is tall and roughly bearded, with a hatchet face. Indeed, there is something axelike in his demeanor, and he seems most elemental—most true to his own hard-hewn being—when stripped to the waist and savagely splitting logs. He would make a good executioner. The boy is Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), who looks solid enough, though a flame of fear burns in his eyes. William is married to Katherine (Kate Dickie), and they have four other children: an older daughter, the radiant Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy); twins, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), young and mischievous; and a baby named Samuel. He is tended to, one day, by Thomasin, who plays peekaboo for his delight, in the open air. Three times she covers and uncovers her eyes, and he laughs. The fourth time she uncovers them, he is gone.
The film, bearing the subtitle “A New-England Folktale,” is set around 1630, meaning that William and Katherine, whose heavy accents betray their roots in the North of England, belong to the early generation of settlers. This particular family, though, has been doubly exiled—first across the ocean, and then from the fortified village where they used to reside. In the opening scene, William is brought before a council of his fellow-citizens and accused of “prideful conceit.” What exactly that entails we never know, and he claims to have practiced only “the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels,” but the outcome is harsh: he and his kin are banished, with all their possessions piled on a cart. The wilderness awaits.
The rest of the action takes place on the verge of a forest: the classic habitation of a fairy tale. That is where William, Katherine, and their children build a home and try to forge a life, with the dense gloom rustling beside them. When Samuel is snatched, we see him—or think we see him, in a glimpse—being carried through the trees by a scuttling figure, caped in red. We are meant to recall not just the Brothers Grimm but Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” (1973), in which the alleyways of Venice were prowled by a similar scarlet fiend. What occurs, after the abduction, is the first of many terrible rites: a female form, naked and unnamed, pounding at something within the rotten trunk of a tree, like an apothecary with a mortar and pestle, and smearing herself with gore.
What is going on here? And is it going on at all? Could we be observing not facts but the fanciful terrors of the devout? The film is certainly stuffed with devilry, and Eggers is not shy of familiar tropes. The family keeps goats, for instance—a white one whose udders spurt blood into a pail when Thomasin milks her, and a villainous brute called Black Phillip, whom the twins both taunt and conspire with in their chanted nursery rhymes. He’s a dead ringer for the billy on the inner sleeve of the Rolling Stones’ “Goats Head Soup,” and Eggers holds him in such careful closeup that his muzzle is blurred while his mad and staring eye remains in focus. As a rule, keep clear of his horns. The question of whether he is the Prince of Darkness or merely a farmyard pest, however, stays unresolved, and “The Witch” feels at once sticky with tangible detail and numinous with suggestion. Katherine dreams of a raven pecking at her breast, in a parody of a suckling child, but when she wakes in the morning there really is a bloodstain on her shift.
Viewers who grew up with the “Scream” franchise, or with the toothless array of “Saw” films, will doubtless fidget and sigh at such ambivalence. They will rightly ask if “The Witch” even deserves to be called a horror flick. Well, it sounds like one; the composer of the score, Mark Korven, doesn’t hold back on the shriek of strings, beefed up by a choir of rising moans. Also, there are just enough jumps to rattle your popcorn. I knew that something was afoot as Caleb approached a mossy hut in the woods, but I didn’t expect an actual foot, bare and tempting, to appear on the threshold. Yet the film is thoroughly stripped of the sniggering ironies that beset, and often wreck, the modern fright fest. You can laugh at the archaism of the dialogue, if you wish, though I happen to like its sturdy lyricism. (“Thou shalt be home by candle-time tomorrow.”) More important, there is no silliness to undercut the menace—nothing to let you off the hook of having to think about these folk, about the leathery toughness of their existence, and about the load that their souls are forced to bear. You believe in their belief.
This is, to put it mildly, an uncommon state of affairs for anyone who frequents the cinema, the theatre, or the opera house. How many people, these days, heading out of “Don Giovanni,” are honestly shaken by the mortal terror of the hero, in his final conflagration? Which of us treats “The Crucible,” set sixty years or so after the events of “The Witch,” as anything but a reflection on the political hysteria of the time in which it was written? The problem is simple: we can’t be damned. One gradual effect of the Enlightenment was to tamp down the fires of Hell and sweep away the ashes, allowing us to bask in the rational coolness that ensued. But the loss—to the dramatic imagination, at any rate—has been immense. If your characters are convinced that a single action, a word out of place, or even a stray thought brings not bodily risk but an eternity of pain, your story will be charged with illimitable dread. No thriller, however tense, can promise half as much.
That is what Eggers is striving for in “The Witch.” It’s the first feature that he has directed; hitherto, he has worked as a production and costume designer, and the legacy shows in the weave of the homespun clothes. The twins are swaddled like dolls, thus acquiring an extra layer of creepiness, and the colors of the outfits, matching the umbers and grays of the landscape, turn any glint of red into an explosion. But period dress is nothing unless shrouded in period emotions—in the qualms and the ragged jitters of the age. That is why we see Caleb, on the brink of puberty, casting sly glances at the swell of his sister’s bosom; incestuous guilt is enough to persuade the poor sap that he is, in the deepest sense, bewitched. Indeed, each person thinks that he or she is responsible for the loss of Samuel, and for the dire events that follow. The entire film is crafted as a kind of spiritual whodunnit. Katherine is afraid that her baby, as yet unbaptized, will be among the lost, denied entrance to Heaven, while William, his authority flaking and peeling away with every scene, admits out loud to being a thief.
And what did he steal? A silver wine cup. Time and again, Eggers adds hints of the Biblical, to thicken the air of piety that these people breathe. One of them, in the wake of a spell, vomits up a whole apple, shiny and intact. When they pray, they are planted squarely in the frame, and viewed either from behind, kneeling on the ground with their hands conjoined and upraised, or head on, at table, as in the Last Supper, with William saying grace. Thomasin, alone, confesses to the Almighty, “I have, in secret, played upon thy Sabbath,” compelling us to wonder what her games consist of and whether they count as play.
Taylor-Joy is remarkable in the role, her wide-eyed innocence entwined with a thread of cunning—proof either of her quick wits, scarcely unusual in a clever and curious girl, or of some fell purpose. One night, in Black Phillip’s stall, we hear a low whisper of temptation in her ear: “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” it asks. “To see the world?” There is surely no chance that she—or we, for that matter, even now—could refuse that proposition. And so “The Witch” hastens to its harrowing climax, about which, I predict, you will want to rage deliciously. It borrows from Goya, an artist in his element with demons, and I cannot decide if the sequence unbalances the ambitions of “The Witch” or brings them to full and flamboyant bloom. But this is a scary movie and a serious one, because it lures us into the minds, and the earthly domains, of those who are themselves scared, night and day, that they have forfeited the mercies of God. It takes an original movie to remind us of original sin.