***1/2 (out of five)
Sundance Best Director Winner Robert Eggers’ carefully modulated, highly original 1630s-set “New-England Folktale” is precisely that, and the Friday night gore-cravers and retro-slasher freaks should look elsewhere for their bloody thrills. If not, ten minutes of authentic (literally taken from journals of the period) 1630s Puritan parlance will quickly convince them they’ve picked the wrong movie.
This happened to this handsome, small film on its US release: buoyed by the supremely enthusiastic response the film received at Sundance, its distributor A24 went wide with its release, accompanied by a trailer that shamelessly exploited a batch of the film’s creepier shots, thus encouraging a whole swathe of mainstream horror heads to attend on opening weekend only to dismiss the film – in many cases, extremely rudely – through all the venues modern technocriticism has to offer. In other words, it deliberately tried a bait-and-switch, attracted the wrong audience, and got shat on.
The film itself is no con, but an artful and beautifully crafted little gem that seems to draw inspiration from Ben Wheatley (particularly A Field In England), Wheatley’s own source of inspiration the “British folk horror” film (such as The Witches, Blood On Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General) as well as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, with which it shares all the major themes but in a much more confined setting. The dialogue – and there is a lot of it – really is drawn from primary sources, full of “thees” and “thous” and “thithers”. It’s delivered with absolute sincerity by an excellent small cast including everyone’s favourite tall Yorkshireman Ralph Ineson (you’ll know him when you see him), Red Road star Kate Dickie, and a quartet of excellent children led by soon-to-be-a-major-star Anya Taylor-Joy.
Eggers is a costume and production designer from the short film world. The Witch is a superb debut for him as a writer/director, but, and please forgive my repeating myself, take him at his title’s word: this is a folktale, and while it’s creepy and atmospheric, it’s as far from a rollercoaster of jump-scares as it is from a barrel of laughs.