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Toil and Trouble

Puritans meet their maker in masterful new horror film The Witch

Lush, brooding and contagiously creepy, The Witch is just the sort of spooky gem that fans of horror clamor for but rarely get. The film neither shocks nor bludgeons you. It does not beg indulgence, nor does it paint its grotesqueries in broad strokes.

Instead, this movie worms its way into your brain with insidious intent as it follows the awful disintegration of a family of Puritans who abandon their colony for the virginal thickets of the 17th-century American wilderness, just years after the landing at Plymouth Rock. Seeking some newfound Eden, the family discovers hell instead.

Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers, The Witch begins with a dubious act of liberation, as William (Ralph Ineson) declares his family’s exile from its New England settlement on religious grounds; the colonists, you see, are not godly enough for William, and so he packs up a rickety wagon with his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their brood, which includes newborn Samuel, a pair of adolescent twins named Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), the prepubescent Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and Thomassin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the teenaged daughter whose blossoming sexuality mirrors the protean surge of the surrounding landscape, innocent and abysmal.

But pride goeth before the fall, and the descent into madness begins all too quickly. The family stakes its claim amid the buzzing forests, a little patch of light in the primordial jungle. The baby disappears without a trace, and the twins start whispering with a goat named Black Phillip. Their crop of corn rots. Caleb and his father, off to hunt in the woods, get separated, and the boy happens upon a mossy shack puffing wood smoke into the dank sky.

The Witch is an unsanitized and unreconstructed fairy tale that plumbs the depths of religious fanaticism, bloated pride and human isolation. Yes, it is a horror film, and a damn fine one, but it is also more than that. Eggers is a smart, sly director; he keeps a tight rein on his material by focusing down close on this doomed family swept with relentless speed into a nightmare that may or may not be of their own creation. As with any fable well told, the truth is a matter of interpretation.

In this sense, it’s irrelevant whether you believe witches are real or whether you believe, instead, that they’re a collective delusion of patriarchal oppression or, perhaps, simply hallucinations caused by pathogenic corn or whack-a-mole eruptions of our subjugation and destruction of the natural world; all views are valid, because The Witch focuses not on causes but effects. Like Hawthorne and Poe, the movie takes a stark look at the mythical beginnings of this damned country and asks: When was this ever a dream that wasn’t a nightmare? And when does the trial end? Who is judge, and who is executioner?

I’m putting my money on Black Phillip. He’s a beast. 

The Witch is playing at Regal Cinemas and Cinemark 17