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?)
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.
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.)
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
MPAA rating: R, for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity
Playing: In general release