DVD Review: The Witch

★★★★☆
Old hags, horned deceivers and scary forests have all been done to death and it's easy to see why audiences might tire of revisiting the same old tropes. 'Twould be best to banish such doubts where Robert Eggers' brooding debut feature The Witch is concerned, however. It may tread familiar ground but it does so with unsettling composure, repurposing recognisable genre motifs for the period tale of a God-fearing family beset on their isolated New England farm. As much about the fear of sin as it is about evil itself, this is incredibly atmospheric stuff dripping with puritanical dread and steeped in satanic folklore.

Superstition is the key ingredient in Eggers' premise, of a family straining beneath the gargantuan weight of their own fear and guilt, with the supernatural. If you are hoping for a crone to descend upon them from the woods and pick them off in ever more inventive ways, then this is probably not the film for you. This is horror as ambiguity and recrimination in which the terror grips you far deeper; it's designed to chill the blood, not make you jump. The director cut his teeth on an Expressionist Hansel and Gretel short, so he's no stranger to crafting terrifying woodland. A tangle of gnarled and knotted trunks lurk omnipresent and impenetrable. Mist rolls through Jarin Blaschke's cold and precise photography as potently as the disappearance of the baby Samuel tears through the fabric of this newly adopted homestead - and the gruesome, abstracted violence of his fate dispatches any sense of comfort and safety the audience may be harbouring.

William (Ralph Ineson) has been forced to relocate his wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children after exile from the Puritan plantation they called home due. Everyone finds that truly tested after Samuel is snatched, and grief and spite reverberate through the wooden farmhouse. As strange and troubling events escalate, eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) suffers the brunt of her mother's wrath, while Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) sees the first temptation of the flesh in his sister's blossoming bosom and the two youngest children share an ominous affinity with a ram named Black Philip. There are lulls in the narrative but never breaks and as the spectre in the woods - and a discomforting hare - tighten the noose, accusations and confessions flow as thickly as blood. That a character embracing sin provides the only moment of respite - nay, ecstasy - is indication enough at what drives the intestine-twisting tension of The Witch.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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