Fantastic Fest 2015: Foreboding terror permeates “The Witch”

Anya Taylor-Joy stars in "The Witch"

Anya Taylor-Joy stars in “The Witch”

Genre fanatics have been buzzing about “The Witch” since it debuted at Sundance earlier this year. It screened in competition, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, and walked away with the Directing Award in the U.S. Dramatic category for first time filmmaker Robert Eggers.

Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” the film takes place in 1630 where William (Ralph Inesone) and his family are thrown off the plantation where they live due to a disagreement that is never fully made clear. They forge ahead and settle on the edge of a wooded area, where they struggle to grow crops and survive away from their previous community.

Oldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor Joy) is playing outside with her newborn baby brother Samuel, when he disappears during a game of peek-a-boo. One moment he is wrapped in a blanket before her eyes and the next moment he is gone. This prompts the household to descend into chaos, with accusations of witchcraft and black magic.

Katherine (Kate Dickie) is the matriarch of the family and has a hard time holding it together, already suffering from depression since leaving England and subsequently being banished from the plantation. After a failed hunting trip into the woods to hunt for food, William’s young son Caleb (newcomer Harvey Scrimshaw, who gets one of the film’s most haunting sequences) becomes determined to help pull his family back together, but doesn’t bargain for what awaits him under cover of darkness.

Technically, this film is a marvel. Staying true to the time period, every scene is shot only by natural light or candlelight, to the point where you feel like you have to squint sometimes to make out some of the interior evening scenes. Mark Korven’s score is an integral part of supplying the film’s ominous mood, as important as any of the situations the characters find themselves in to prod the nerves. The string-heavy music is accented by a choir that combines with the visuals for a genuine racheting up of tension. It also doesn’t hurt that the chosen aspect ratio of 1.66:1 literally boxes us in and adds a subtle undercurrent of feeling trapped in the wilderness.

Eggers directed and wrote the screenplay, which was painstakingly researched and features dialogue that is based on court documents and period sources from historical accounts of witchcraft. Much like the lives of those during this time period, the film is slow-paced, but not problematic. It’s deliberate, but exciting.

It’s unfortunate that general audiences will not get a chance to enjoy “The Witch” in time for Halloween, but good things come to those who wait.

“The Witch” screens again at 9 p.m. Tuesday. A24 is expected to release the film nationwide on February 26, 2016. 

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