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The Witch’ Conjures Up A Puritan Nightmare

Feature debut of Robert Eggers challenges how we define horror

Anya Taylor-Joy  and Harvey Scrimshaw play a sister and brother who are warne...

Credit: A24

Above: Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw play a sister and brother who are warned that evil lies in the woods in the new film "The Witch."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "The Witch."

Transcript

Companion viewing

"Haxan" (1922)

"The Shining" (1980)

"We Are What We Are" (2013)

"It Follows" (2015)

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"The Witch" (opened Feb. 19 throughout San Diego) won a best directing award at Sundance last year for first time director Robert Eggers. It was well-deserved. This is another film that I had the good fortune to see last year at Abertoir: The International Horror Festival of Wales.

Filmmaker Robert Eggers shot his period-film "The Witch" with mostly natural light. That means when night falls on the edge of a forest, you’re confronted by country dark, a complete and utter blackness that can stir intense fear because what lies before you is a vast and potentially terrifying unknown.

That’s the sensation Eggers conjures up in his feature debut "The Witch." He calls it a Puritan nightmare.

"It needed to feel like an inherited nightmare, awakening ancient ancestral fears we didn’t know we had.

Even if our ancestors aren’t literally Puritans, we’re all sort of in North America faced with the same parts of the unconscious of western culture. So yeah, a Puritan’s nightmare, I think is accurate," Eggers said.

Eggers draws on historical documents (ones he says you can easily find with a Google search) to create a film about what happens to a pious family forcibly ejected from their Puritan settlement in the 1630s and made to live on their own at the edge of a forest. Things go bad quickly. The crops fail, the newborn goes missing, and the little girl says there’s a witch living in the woods.

Eggers creates a luminously beautiful film about the terrifying folklore of his native New England. As with the recent remake "We Are What We Are," "The Witch" looks to a family for the setting of its tale of horror. Both focus on a strong patriarch and religious family where God and ritual are key. The girls in both films look like Botticelli angels and the contrast between their radiant beauty and the horrors to come is part of what makes both films so effective.

In "The Witch," Eggers conveys not simply the terror of the unknown or of the supernatural but also the terror that comes when fear makes people turn on each other. It is in that sense of hysteria, where accusations fly, that the film finds its most resonant connection to modern audiences.

But what Eggers doesn't do is tell the viewer what to think. His film serves up scenes that he has taken from historical eye witness accounts and you can take everything he shows at face value or it could be false accounts of people creating explanations for things they simply did not understand in the 1630s. The fact that the film and especially the end is open to debate makes the film all the more rewarding to watch a second time.

The cast is superb. Ralph Ineson, with a deep gravely voice and imposing stature rules over the family home with a firm sense of authority. Kate Dickie as the mother is a study in steady deterioration as loss and grief drive her mad. The children are all exceptional, especially Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin and Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb.

The film is meticulously crafted. Eggers, who comes from a background in design, took care that clothes and furniture were made in ways authentic to the period. Then he shot with mostly natural light and on cloudy days to create a sense of dread.

As with films such as "Bone Tomahawk," "It Follows," and "We Are What We Are," "The Witch" (rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity) challenges expectations about what we define as horror. Eggers delivers a stunning film about dread and the primordial fears that still lurk in our subconscious.

I have a podcast featuring Robbert Eggers where he discusses the film's origins and its Lovecraftian aspirations. You can subscribe to Cinema Junkie on iTunes or check back on the podcast page for the latest episodes.

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