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'The Witch' Film Review: History and the supernatural collide, with terrifying results

February 19, 2016Ben MK

Suspenseful and terrifying to its core, writer/director Robert Eggers' The Witch: A New-England Folk Tale takes our collective fear of the supernatural and twists it into one of the most haunting movies in recent memory.

Set in the seventeenth century, the film tells the story of a devoutly religious Puritan family who fall out of favor with the leaders of their plantation and are banished to the outlying woods. There, patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) hopes to start anew. But it doesn't take long for things to go awry. And when their youngest, baby Samuel, is snatched right from under the nose of their eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), William's dream of a better life for himself, his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children slowly begins to unravel.

Of course, the film isn't called The Witch for nothing, for we soon learn that there is a mysterious presence in the woods, one that can apparently take on multiple forms, and which seeks to do Thomasin and her three remaining siblings — younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twins Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) — unspeakable harm. The question is, can the family decipher the true identity of this malevolent force and find a way to stop it before it can accomplish its unholy mission?

Stylish and thoroughly unnerving, what follows is the kind of old-school, slow-burn frightener that viewers won't soon forget. From its deliberate pacing and overcast color palette to the tension-building score filled with discordant strings and eerie harmonies, The Witch is a film that benefits immensely from the sense of atmosphere it exudes, rather than relying on cheap jump scares or an overabundance of gore. But aside from the creepiness factor, what really sets the movie apart are its performances, not to mention Eggers' grueling attention to historical detail.

Drawing its inspiration from real-life accounts, testimonials and court records from the period, The Witch is an accomplished piece of filmmaking that's steeped in authenticity — from the old-english dialogue to the costumes and production design — all of which paints a chilling portrait of the time in American history leading up to the Salem Witch Trials. And, of course, as horror fans well know, there are few things scarier than the knowledge that the terror they're watching unfold on-screen is matched by some equally horrifying real-life atrocities.

The Witch releases February 19th, 2016 from Elevation Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 32 Mins.

* Reviewer's note: Portions of this film review were adapted from my TIFF review of the film, published on September 14th, 2015.

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