You won’t jump in fright or be subjected to gratuitous scenes of torture. But The Witch: A New-England Folktale, written and directed by Robert Eggers, is as horrifying as they come.
Set in 1630s New England, The Witch isn’t so much a “scary” movie as it is a careful exploration of faith, family and folklore. You’ve heard witch stories before—you’ve probably shouted some unkind words at the lonely lady down the street. But this is the farthest thing possible from Disney’s Hocus Pocus.
When a family is banished from a Puritan community, they settle at the edge of a dark forest. At first, their new life appears manageable, even peaceful, until Samuel, their newborn, disappears under mysterious circumstances.
What took him? Or, more specifically, who?
What follows is an astonishing series of events that leads to a shocking climax.
At best, scary movies today are good for one good fright, maybe two. But they’re all so predictable, and pander to our most primitive fears. Everyone is afraid of the dark, nobody wants to get slashed to bits, and so on. The Witch, on the other hand, is a more sophisticated take on the horror genre, successfully using tone and restraint as its weapons of choice.
Eggers plays with the supernatural while keeping the story grounded, creating a believable world that oozes hysteria that was prevalent at the time. There are no cheap thrills, and tricks aren’t used to misdirect viewers. Instead, Eggers builds an unrelenting sense of dread that will send shivers down your spine. The Witch doesn’t feel so much like a fairy tale, as the movie’s subtitle suggests, but something that actually occurred hundreds of years ago.
To add an air of authenticity, Eggers draws from actual accounts of witchcraft and possession in New England, from the dialogue to the meticulous dressing of sets. Truth be told, some of the dialogue is nearly impossible to decipher, but it helps create a mood as thick as the New England fog.
It isn’t just the fantasy of witches that makes The Witch such a triumph. The dynamic of a feverishly religious 1630s family, struggling to survive on a failing crop, is fascinating to watch. And once the threat of a more sinister evil appears, their faith and sanity are quickly called into question. Is there a witch deep in the woods, or is it just the unearthly landscape that drives them mad?
While The Witch is about the disintegration of a family, it focuses mainly on Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest daughter, who struggles to resolve her religious upbringing with her developing sexuality. And after jokingly confessing to being a witch, a series of events leads her family to suspect Thomasin might legitimately be a servant of Satan. And even though audiences know this isn’t true, you still start to wonder if maybe they’re right.
The Witch isn’t for everyone, especially for those who delight in the cheap thrills of jump scares. But stick with it, and you’ll become seduced by its tone and mood, just as Thomasin is when an unlikely character asks if she wants to “live deliciously.”
- Audio commentary with director Robert Eggers
- The Witch: A Primal Folklore featurette
- Salem panel Q&A
- Design gallery