From January to Oscar night, the movies are in the doldrums. The last few Oscar contenders are trickling into neighborhood theaters, along with a few lumbering misfits that are not now, nor have they ever been, worthy of any kind of awards push. But it’s a very fertile time for horror movies, the traditional antidote to feel-good holiday fare, and the gnarlier, the better.

So you don’t expect much from a movie called The Witch (or, to be true to the advertising campaign, The VVitch). Its early colonial America setting suggests the Salem witch trials, satanic rites, vintage Hammer horror films. But this movie is nothing quite so cheesy, nor as gory, as you might expect; it’s an often squirmingly intense psychological drama of hysteria and religious fanaticism.

It’s still plenty scary (at least, very, very creepy), but it’s fearful anticipation that propels the narrative, not in-your-face violence. Like the best horror/suspense movies (think of the original The Haunting, from 1963), The Witch plays mercilessly on our dread of what might be lurking in the shadows, rather than actually showing much onscreen—and is all the more effective because of it. Oh, yes, there’s blood, but not so much of the usual fx gore-mongering.

Set in New England, ca. 1630—60 years before the famed Salem witch trials—The Witch is rich in period detail, meticulously researched by rookie writer-director Robert Eggers. (Historically correct stitching in the costumes, appropriate period objects and tools, etc.) The Puritan elders of a settlement called the “plantation,” are denouncing one of its members, William (Ralph Ineson), for the sin of pride. William, his anxious wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their five children are cast out of the community to homestead on a distant, isolated tract of land at the edge of a sinister wood.

Theirs is the first generation of settlers to come directly from England in search of freedom to worship their wrathful, demanding god. We don’t know the nature of William’s supposed “sin,” but the family spends every waking moment praying and repenting for their “corrupt nature,” while attending to the hard labor of running their farm. But their corn rots, their hen’s eggs are full of blood, and William decides it’s a punishment from God—leading to more praying and fasting.

At the center of the tale is eldest daughter, Thomasin (lovely Anya Taylor-Joy), dutiful and uncomplaining. Through no fault of her own, her pubescent body has begun to attract the covert attention of her kid brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). But when a mishap occurs to one of the younger children while under Thomasin’s care, a psychic firestorm begins brewing around her that gradually engulfs the entire family.

OK, no spoilers here. But the hysteria and paranoia levels rise to a fever pitch, even as the movie’s visual focus becomes ever smaller, more claustrophobic and intense. The action is staged in cramped quarters by flickering firelight, a shadowy barn, or deep in the dense, dark woods. As family members alternately suspect, blame, and rage at each other, excessive piety toward their unresponsive god fails to produce good results, and the Devil is blamed for everything else. It’s no wonder everyone goes a little nuts, as Eggers suggests the most volatile “corruption” comes from inside the mind.

Eggers amps up the atmosphere: musical passages rise to alarming crescendos, even when nothing is happening onscreen. Twigs snap, and unseen predators rumble in the woods. Eggers shoots everything from the same close, realistic point-of-view, so if something weird does appear onscreen, we’re never sure if it’s meant to be a dream, the result of someone’s overstimulated imagination, or “real.”

This is the kind of eerie dynamic between reality and fantasy that was handled so well in Pan’s Labyrinth. Subtitled A New England Folk Tale, the film conjures classic images from fairy tales and folklore: a bloody apple; a red-cloaked figure glimpsed in the wood. Whether or not The Devil is loose among this family, or they’re preyed on by devils of their own making, Eggers leaves it up to the viewer to decide.


THE WITCH: A NEW ENGLAND FOLK TALE

***(out of four)

With Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw. Written and directed by Robert Eggers. An A24 release. Rated R. 92 minutes.

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