'The Witch' is a horror film that unnerves frame by frightening frame

It's the rare horror film that sows suspicion into nearly every frame, so intent on a darkening mood that the stillness of trees at the edge of a wood, or a child's face in demonic thrall, even an ambling goat, carries the same capacity to unnerve. Such is the detail that Robert Eggers brings to his impressive debut feature "The Witch," a grim wade into the disintegration of a besieged God-fearing New England family in the early 17th century. If ever a chiller deserved that overused foodie tag "artisanal," this painstakingly crafted bid for naturalistic creeps does. (Are we surprised that Eggers, who won last year's directing award at Sundance for "The Witch," is based in that epicenter of the culturally authentic, Brooklyn?)

Set decades before Salem stamped the ravages of devil hysteria into the history books, "The Witch" opens with English farmer William (Ralph Ineson), his stern-faced wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their brood of five, banished from their Puritan community over a religious disagreement. They decamp to an open stretch of land next to a menacing forest that might as well have an "Abandon hope all ye who enter here" sign out front to go with the shrieky-strings music score. After the family's newborn goes missing during an outing with restless teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), an already charged atmosphere of financial hardship, rigorous piety and social exile turns rancorous when a barely coping, grieving Katherine suspects Thomasin of witchcraft. Beleaguered William initially defends his daughter, but even his faith is tested when the next-oldest, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), ventures into the woods to hunt and disappears too.

Implicit in Eggers' "thee" and "dost"-heavy screenplay, inspired by real-life diaries, court testimony and pamphlets from the era, is that whatever supernatural malice the devout can readily conjure as explanation, the responses to such a perceived threat can be worse. When the younger, impish twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) routinely taunt Thomasin with accusations of black magic, you can sense the air curdle. Thomasin, in fact, emerges as a tragic, feminist portrait of misread adolescence, her pushback against a restrictive patriarchal environment viewed instead as an ill to be questioned.

But "The Witch" doesn't strictly hew to the historian's studied interpretations. It's been well-argued that with horror, the explained is the enemy of the oblique. Explicitness has its place, but a stoked imagination usually fares better. That makes "The Witch" an odd duck in that the timing of certain frightful images — a gruesomely smeared hag hunched over a bloody mortar and pestle, levitating bodies — evoke a seemingly literal evil, while others suggest a realm that might exist only inside a tormented family's collective mind.

In a way, the movie is a tug of war between the fruits of exhaustive research into old-world madness — which plays out most prominently in the richly possessed performances (particularly Taylor-Joy and young Scrimshaw) and the evocative frontier trappings — and an entertainer's pulpier instincts. Once convinced of a scene's possible rationality, Eggers will throw in a hacked-up poisoned apple to slap you right back into the dark allure of folklore. The dissonance, not unlike what Kubrick and Polanski mined so effectively, has its twisted appeal, never more so than when the focus is on the suspected malevolence of the family's misbehaving goat, Black Phillip, one of the more powerfully eerie animal presences in recent movie memory. (Hold your shock: He has a Twitter handle.)

Judiciously gory but never bloodthirsty, "The Witch" can sometimes feel like a clinical exercise. It isn't engineered for hopped-up date-night scares, but its blanket of moonlit dread is certainly form-fitting; the narrative pokiness and precisely composed visuals place it firmly in the cult horror world, where the occasional "Boo!" doesn't carry as much credence as a sustained "Eww."


'The Witch'

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

MPAA rating: R, for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity

Playing: In general release


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A version of this article appeared in print on February 19, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Unnerving frame by frame - REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe