Remember how let down you felt when The Blair Witch Project never even showed a witch? That "What, that's it?" feeling you had after the shot of the dude peeing up against the wall, having never really seen anything scary in the film, unless you count Heather Donahue's snot and twigs as really scary.
The Witch, the Sundance-award-winning directorial debut (and total masterpiece) from Robert Eggers (who also wrote the script) actually has a witch in it. She makes her first appearance very early on in the film, and she's doing a bad thing. A really, really, horribly disturbing, oh-that's-how-this-movie-is-really-going-to-start bad thing.
Set in 1630's New England with an exceptional attention to detail, there are plenty of ways to interpret the events and themes of The Witch, the mark of a good, heady horror film. Eggers has made a horror movie with some major meat on the bone that stands in league with such classics as The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby.
And, oh, lordy, is this film creepy. The sense of dread kicks in immediately after William (Ralph Ineson) is banished from his New England settlement for getting a little too over-the-top with his religious beliefs. He, his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), their little baby, their oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and creepy twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) must head out into the grey forests and fields to make a life away from government and society.
The family has a lot of issues. William leans a little too hard on the Bible stuff, as does Katherine. Caleb is clearly going through puberty, and stares at sister Thomasin's boobs in a way that surely would get him put in time out at Sunday school. Thomasin herself, a budding woman, is starting to think there's more to life than listening to her dad spout religious psychobabble and milking goats all day. As for the twins, well, they're just a couple of scary kids who scream and dance outside while allegedly talking to the family goat, Black Phillip.
Let me just get this out of the way right now. You will hate Black Phillip. Black Phillip will give a bad name to goats everywhere. Next time you see one of those goats shouting like a human being during a YouTube video, it'll hit you in a much different way.
Thomasin engages in a simple game of peekaboo with the toddler, and the witchery commences. The setting of The Witch takes place decades before the Salem witch trials, and the movie seems to ask the question, "Say, what if all of that hysteria was based in truth?"
Eggers doesn't use this as a platform for anything to be considered historical, but it does provide a deliciously nasty premise for an outrageous horror movie. His period details, including the excellent costuming and structures built for the movie, definitely suggest what the times might've been like, and in that respect, it feels historical. When you throw in witches drinking blood and shoving apples down kids' throats, you get a scary vibe that is all too real.
There are many ways to interpret The Witch. Some will see it as a straightforward witch tail. Others might see it as an allegorical play upon religious zealotry and radicalization. And, still, others might chime in and say it's about going through puberty with super-uptight parents.
All of the interpretations work, and that's what makes the movie so much fun for those of us who like to play guessing games about the movies we've seen for days after. I'm still thinking about the significance of certain moments, who was actually doing all of the dirty deeds, etc. I'm also remembering how unsettling Mark Korven's score is, and thinking Jarin Blaschke's cinematography should get some Oscar consideration come year's end.
Also, I'm definitely hung up on Black Phillip, that damned staring rabbit, and those twins screeching and dancing in the barnyard. Eggers knows what is freaky, and The Witch pulls no punches. It will render you you frightened by apples, rabbits, twins, goats, muskets, pilgrim hats, babies, milk and, oh yeah, witches.