The Witch is not the stuff of horror movies; it is the stuff of folklore. Stolen children. Hovels in the woods. Familiars. Poison apples. Cursed wilderness. Here the civilizing influence of Christianity and American exceptionalism are no match for ancient pagan things in the woods. The Wicker Man meets The Exorcist meets The Crucible, but with nary a concession to a modern horror movie audience. Things don’t jump out of the shadows. There isn’t any of the usual gore. It’s not found footage. The actors even talk funny.
Most of first time director Robert Eggers’ experience is as a production designer, and it shows. The Witch is gorgeous with its rustic simplicity, sickly grey cinematography, and richly inhabited period costumes. But Eggers shows considerable skill as a director, telling his story with an unnerving slow burn, a harrowing score, and poetic dialogue. He relies heavily on his cast. His script expects a lot from them. Ralph Ineson’s stately basso profundo and the harshly austere lines of Kate Dickie’s face will be familiar to anyone who’s seen them on Game of Thrones. It’s no surprise these British veterans are fascinating to watch. They make an imposing couple. You’d think ancient pagan things in the woods don’t stand a chance.
But the foundation of The Witch is its child actors. Newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and especially Harvey Scrimshaw, dwarfed by his father’s musket, manage difficult dialogue and difficult scenes that would have completely undermined the movie if they didn’t work. This is ultimately a horrific fable, a grim fairy tale, and it needs children. It’s hungry for them.
The Witch shares a superficial similarity to Poltergeist and The Exorcist. But because it’s set in a very different time, because it’s about people with deeply religious worldviews and a distinct way of talking, there’s a remote quality to it. This isn’t a horror movie you watch and think about what you would do. This isn’t It Follows or 28 Days Later. Instead, it plays out like someone else’s horror movie. It’s about the things they would be afraid of, how they would act, what they would feel, what they would do. But because it’s so effective, because Eggers and his cast sell the horror with such conviction, there’s no safety in its remoteness. Ultimately, The Witch would have us all.