Banished from their village for reasons not entirely clear, a Puritan family in 1630s New England retreats to the edge of an isolated forest to build a home.
“We will conquer this wilderness,” pious patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) proclaims. “It will not consume us.”
The eerie locale, measured pace and period dialogue (much of it borrowed from court transcripts of the era) make “The Witch” the antithesis to rapidly edited, video game-style horror films. Yet this Sundance hit from rookie Robert Eggers fails to capitalize on its entrancing setup. Straining under foolish screenwriting and directorial tangents, this noble experiment ultimately collapses in craptacular fashion.
The story begins like many scary tales of yore with the advice to never enter the forest.
William commands this of his five children as they acclimate to their gray outpost: a house, barn, animal pen and woodpile that he adds to every day with a regiment of fierce chopping.
Older daughter Thomasin (the gifted Anya Taylor-Joy) isn’t enamored with transitioning to puberty in such a lonely, God-fearing environment. But the wispy-yet-headstrong blonde proves reliable at keeping her preteen brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and younger twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) in line. And she’s eager to help mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) take care of newborn Samuel.
But while she’s playing peek-a-boo outside with her baby brother, he disappears. Thomasin thinks she sees a figure dart off into the woods with him. A wolf? A human? Something worse?
The clan gradually unravels at the loss, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. When the crops rot and the animals sicken, new accusations arise. It must be due to the witch in the woods. Or is Thomasin really the witch?
Subtitled “A New-England Folk Tale,” the film introduces a number of initially tantalizing themes. Is the witch just a deflection for a devout family dealing with the children’s sexual awakening? The escalating tension among the gravel-voiced father, his progressively withdrawn wife and their ever-skeptical daughter hints at this. As does a throwaway shot of Caleb grabbing a quick glance at his sister’s bound cleavage.
The taunting, atonal soundtrack by Mark Korven makes it all especially unnerving. Most of it is composed on a Swedish nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle from the 1400s.
Filming primarily in natural light in southern Ontario, Eggers captures the forbidding remoteness of what America was like for those emigrating from the stained glass cities of Europe. Think what it takes to simply exist in these hostile surroundings, let alone when a supernatural force conspires against you.
How evocative of that memorable William S. Burroughs quote: “America is not a young land: It is old and dirty and evil, before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.”
No surprise why “The Witch” garnered so much buzz. (Eggers won a directing award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.)
The movie relies on unwavering authenticity, its ye olde approach. Until it doesn’t. “The Witch” jarringly inserts moments of hokey surrealism, as if another director hijacked the footage during editing and shot a few cloven-hoofed inserts while on the set of “Sleepy Hollow.” The spell gets officially broken.
What appears to be a moody and earnest attempt at genuine horror transforms into a drab downer. A drama turned parable turned confused exploitation flick. “The Witch” stands as a true missed opportunity for a genre desperately craving more modern triumphs.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 1:30.