‘The Witch’ delivers unrelenting thrills

Eggers’s Sundance darling uses striking sound design to help build screaming tension

Just as it did to Stephen King, this movie scared the hell out of me.

The Witch will raise your pulse by exploiting your instincts in the best way possible, but there is also con-siderable filmmaking craft to analyze and back up its nonstop viscera.

The story both fictionalizes and documents an array of witchcraft-related testimony from throughout New England circa 1630. It then assembles these threads into a quick 92-minute tale with painstaking period accuracy. This was notably well before the Salem trials of 1692, but only a decade before witchcraft became a capital crime.

And let me tell you: The paranoia was there, all right.

William and Katherine – played respectively by Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, both of whom previously appeared in recurring Game of Thrones roles, though they never shared a scene – are excommunicated from their Puritan Christian plantation due to “prideful conceit,” and they move their family several kilometers away to a piece of land on the edge of a dense, infernal forest.

A few months later the family has built a farm and seems to be doing just fine, when one day their newborn son Samuel vanishes right before the eyes of his eldest sister, the virginal Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). This unhinges the rest of the plot, beginning with a pair of disastrous forays into the woods and concluding in a scene that’s as surprising as it is inevitable—in how it feels, at least. That said, this final scene is unfortunately clumsier and campier than the screenplay leading up to it.

Writer-director Robert Eggers shot this movie, his first feature-length, in the rare 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This is a bit wider than the classic 4:3 – the better to fit an entire family of seven in frame – but a shade narrower than a more standard 16:9 full-screen aspect, which helps accentuate any feeling of claustrophobia within an already dark colour palette.

Venturing from Sackville’s charming-but-dated Vogue Cinema to a Moncton multiplex may well be the reason why I need to single out The Witch’s sound design. In any case, aside from a few inaudible lines of dialogue, it is immaculate and complements the unpredictable pace set by the screenplay marvellously.

Technical prowess aside, Eggers also demonstrates how gifted he is at generating drama deriving from his script’s meticulously sown seeds of distrust within the family. Katherine notices her father’s silver is missing. Elder son Caleb lies about going apple picking and is later found out. Thomasin taunts her vexatious younger sister and unwisely pretends that she’s a witch to frighten her.

Having seen Kate Dickie’s Lysa Arryn in Game of Thrones, I was all too aware of the frightening hysteria upon which she could draw at a moment’s notice. That anticipation served well to keep me on edge whenever the thundering score subsided or ceded itself to dialogue.

When The Witch’s end credits roll, they seem premature. While it’s wise for directors to keep their first features well below two hours, I can’t help but wish Eggers had followed one of his quasi-related story threads right down to the bitter end. The sometimes-chaotic plot is always engrossing, but the third act rushes headlong into its final chapter, whose payoff would’ve been substantially more satisfying had Eggers protracted it by even 15 more minutes.

One character has gained a surprising cult following from his work in this film. “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” he asks. Do yourself a favour and answer him while The Witch remains in theatres.

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