"The Witch" Falls Short Of Festival Buzz

Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” is a film festival movie to its core, form-fitted to houses of rabid cinephiles unaware as to what they’re about to experience. And the 17th century witchcraft pic spent most of 2015 doing just that, sneaking up on unsuspecting audiences whose ignorance proved an invaluable ally. But festival buzz has a funny way of snowballing into the kind of hype that steamrolls small movies. And “The Witch” is one small movie.

Considering its relatively meager budget ($1 million) and newbie writer-director, the outcome is something of a pleasant surprise. A couple moments are iconic even, its story of newly exiled New England Puritans proffering an inherently earthy starting point for the purposes of juxtaposition with supernatural forces. It works, until it doesn’t.

Colonials William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) have uprooted their family owing to religious conflict within their community. Soon after relocating to a remote, wooded piece of land, William has built a house and Katherine has birthed her fifth child, Samuel.

One day, as the couple’s eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) watches her baby brother, the infant disappears, as if into thin air. The culprit is revealed posthaste: a witch. The bloody sequence that follows is arguably the movie’s most chilling, setting up the family’s slow descent into madness. Evil comes to the their homestead – possibly assuming the form of one of their goats – and the harsh realities of their life increase tenfold.

Whether the screenplay’s themes of paranoia, oppression, and sexual awakening are meant literally or allegorically, Eggers gets one thing exactly right. He makes no bones about his use of psychological horror tropes, calling on Robin Hardy’s original “The Wicker Man” and Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” early and often. The finale in particular invokes “Rosemary” so transparently that it reframes the project’s whole vibe as a riff on the “Satanic panic” films of yesteryear.

But those films were fully formed. Avatars of confidence. Eggers is learning on the job here, never quite sure where his camera belongs (there’s a surplus of empty, unused space) and ever uncertain of his tone (some late game plot turns are silly and out of place). At times it feels like a lengthy, particularly uneven “X-Files” cold open, laying out a centuries-old real-life folktale for Scully and Mulder to unearth.

Taylor-Joy makes for a stellar lead (Thomasin is always an astute mix of vulnerable and resolute) and several scenes make wonderfully sinister use of the family’s aforementioned goat, Black Phillip – but to what end? Phillip’s place in the story dead-ends where it might have blossomed, leaving Thomasin without any moral dilemma at all. Inner conflict gives way to pure survival, sucking the air out of the narrative just as it should be climaxing.

Some of the movie’s problems are budgetary. The washed out visuals (with the exception of oversaturated blood) might have sung with better equipment. And the clunky, era-specific dialogue might have been smoothed over with the benefit of additional research and revision.

But the predictability of the story itself is an unfortunate byproduct of a young filmmaker finding his way, feeling out a genre that’s difficult to get right. Psychological horror is a notoriously tough gig. Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 effort “Don’t Look Now” might be the genre’s last stone cold classic, making “The Witch” an admirable but unsurprisingly undersized attempt.

It’s anything but a sure thing for mainstream horror audiences, a ride best taken with expectations in check and a healthy taste for metaphor. Moviegoers looking for traditional scares – jump-worthy or otherwise – should look elsewhere.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: February 19, 2016
Studio: A24
Director: Robert Eggers
Screenwriter: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity)