Eerie ‘Witch’ brings atmosphere, not jump scares

Andrew Linnabary

4/5 stars

The movie “The Witch” takes place roughly 50 years before the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. It serves as a precursor to the religious fanaticism of that period.

It’s also a disturbing, atmospheric and slow-burning horror film — one with a lack of jump-scares and an emphasis on a looming sense of dread.

The film starts with a Puritan plantation family banished from their settlement due to religious differences. Throughout the film, the father, William (Ralph Ineson), remains consistently headstrong, never returning to the settlement regardless of how bad things look for his family.

William, his wife Katherine (Katie Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), pre-teen Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and creepy twins Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger) build a farm on the edge of a gray and foreboding wood.

The situation quickly takes a turn for the worse. While Thomasin was babysitting Samuel, who was born on the farm, the infant was kidnapped. We see a glimpse of his taker dashing off into the woods.

We’re then exposed to a sickening scene of his kidnapper, one that I won’t spoil — just know director Robert Eggers really pulls no stops when it comes to the accuracy of witchcraft lore.

From there, strain within the family grows to a breaking point. Isolation and tragedy weigh heavily and bring the family to turn against each other, particularly on Thomasin, whose Puritan faith is continually questioned.

This is Eggers’s directorial debut. It hardly shows. The film continues to build tension without losing steam, emphasizing the family falling apart. It is unnerving, yet impossible to look away. It is addictively disturbing.

There seems to be a considerable amount of complaint by audiences that there is nothing scary in the film. It seems viewers seek cheap scares, and are bored by a change from the standard formula. It brings up the point of deciding what makes a good horror film. Is it in screams and jumps, quickly fading jolts of excitement or is it in resonating images and scenes? I’d argue the latter.

“The Witch” brings those in spades. The previously mentioned baby scene and another involving Dickie and a raven are clear highlights. The film brings the kind of imagery that can haunt you long after leaving the theater.

The soundtrack by composer Mark Korven is equally haunting. Mainly played on strings and punctuated with percussion, the music complements the action nicely, making scenes even more stirring with its menace.

As mentioned, Eggers obsessed over being historically accurate, bringing me to this complaint: The dialogue could be frustratingly hard to follow, and it didn’t help that the voices were quiet at times. Some lines were completely unclear. Given the dialect and volume, I wish Eggers had chosen to include subtitles.

The performances, in particular Ineson and Taylor-Joy, are impressive. Eggers said he cast only those who could nail the dialect from the start. Ineson’s grave, deep voice, forever relating and offering everything up to God, is especially memorable.

“The Witch” touches on many subjects, including witchcraft, religious psyche and isolation, but at its core remains a horror film. Dialogue issues aside, it brings eerie atmosphere and imagery, and is a great debut by Eggers.