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"THE WITCH"
(2016) (Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: A banished, religious family tries to make a go of it on their own on a remote farm in early 17th century New England, but must contend with events that might be supernatural in nature.
PLOT:
It's 1630 New England, and due to religious differences, a family of seven has been banished from their Puritan community. With a strong belief in God, William (RALPH INESON) and Katherine (KATE DICKIE) begin life anew with their young teenager daughter, Thomasin (ANYA TAYLOR-JOY); her younger brother, Caleb (HARVEY SCRIMSHAW); their younger mischievous twin siblings, Mercy (ELLIE GRAINGER) and Jonas (LUCAS DAWSON); and the newest addition to the family, infant Samuel.

With Thomasin and Caleb helping around the farmhouse they've built on the edge of a thick forest, William does what he can to provide for the family. But when someone or something snatches Samuel off into the woods never to be seen again, things slowly start to unravel. The grieving Katherine blames Thomasin who was watching the boy at the time, while Caleb in conflicted, knowing he shouldn't be enticed by his sister's burgeoning womanhood but finding himself affected that way nonetheless.

Then the crops start dying, the twins start acting strangely around a goat they've named Black Philip, and trips into the woods lead to the family coming under further strains. With the twins believing Thomasin's earlier mean prank about being a witch, Caleb suddenly seeming possessed after a creepy encounter in the forest, and Katherine becoming further unhinged, it comes into question whether the family is simply experiencing more than their share of bad luck, or if something evil has infiltrated their already difficult lives.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
When I was growing up in the 1960s and early '70s, witches in popular culture were a mixed bag. There were the witch-like characters in the classic Disney animated movies, but also their more buffoonish counterparts in the old Looney Tunes cartoons. Samantha was a friendly (and uber-attractive) witch in "Bewitched," while even "The Wizard of Oz" featured both evil/scary and good/friendly witches.

Aside from that and despite being part of folklore for centuries -- not to mention being at the forefront of some notorious trials in Massachusetts long ago -- such characters haven't really appeared in as many horror films as one might imagine or expect.

And despite the title, they don't get a lot of screen time in this week's release of "The Witch," although their presence and an early 17th century Puritanical family's concern about them get the old goose bumps and neck hair rising on various occasions in this spooky flick. If not for the ending that just didn't work for me -- don't worry there's no Shyamalan-esque "The Village" surprise reveal -- this could have been a classic of the genre.

It's still good, mind you, but the conclusion knocks it down a notch or two from being brilliant. Until then, though, it's a fascinating, creepy and unsettling look at how beliefs can be just as scary as things that go bump in the night.

It's the feature length film debut of Robert Eggers who handles the material with such aplomb that you'd swear he was a filmmaking veteran. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he gets tremendously effective work out of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who at times seems to be channeling the look of certain Stanley Kubrick films, including, yes, "The Shining"), composer Mark Korven (whose score is downright creepy and decidedly old-fashioned -- in a good way), production designer Craig Lathrop and costume designer Linda Muir.

Just as good are the performances from a mostly unknown cast. There's Ralph Ineson (from "Game of Thrones") as the patriarch of a family that's been cast out from their village (over some sort of religious differences) and fully realizes he's a flawed if devout man who must provide for his family. His wife (Kate Dickie) is on the verge of full-out break down and it's not long before Eggers' story provides the catalyst for that. Their set of twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) are some of the creepiest kids to come down the cinematic pike in some time. The older brother (Harvey Scrimshaw) finds himself needing to grow up and help the family at an age which he's not quite ready for that, although his early inklings of puberty having him gazing at and having impure thoughts about his slightly older teenage sister (Anya Taylor-Joy).

When the family's infant child is snatched away into the woods by someone or something, the symbolically named Thomasin finds herself at the scrutiny of her mother and increasingly questioned by her father, while her younger twin siblings single her out as evil despite them having a strange bond with a farm goat they've named Black Philip. Taylor-Joy is terrific in the role, credibly balancing a girl in the transitional period of becoming a woman in a time when that wasn't peaches and cream for any female, especially in the era of pointing out some of them as witches as a means of male and religious dominance.

I liked how Eggers keeps the family off balance, much like his viewers, in terms of what's really occurring. We see something horrific happen to the abducted child, but aren't certain if that's a real or imagined fate. Accordingly, we don't know -- at least for most of the film's 90-some minute runtime -- if evil is truly afoot and lurking in the nearby, thick forest, or if the ingrained belief system of good and evil in the family has derailed and allowed them to believe they're seeing, hearing and experiencing things that possibly might not really be happening.

One can definitely see the influence of "The Shining" on the film (Eggers has stated that Kubrick's horror masterpiece was an influence) from the creepy twins to the locked down but panoramic camera shots and the uber creepy choral infused soundtrack where rising vocal inflections get the old goose bumps active. And then there's the isolated bit with a family where spooky stuff starts to happen and the dad seems to be on the verge of losing it (symbolized by aggressively chopping wood rather than typing and typing and typing

I only wish the ending didn't play out the way it does. I'm not going to give anything away, but the paranoia and slow-burn hysteria that builds throughout is so incredibly effective, as is the resultant behavior by certain characters, that you might just join me in wishing the writer/director wrapped things up in a different fashion.

Even so, and for the most part, this is the sort of horror film that I love, the kind that trades in cheap "jump scene" gotcha scares for psychological terror, unsettling mood and creepy atmosphere that's so unsettling it sticks with you days, weeks and longer after witnessing it. "The Witch" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed February 1, 2016 / Posted February 19, 2016


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