The Witch (2015)

Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett

Directed by: Robert Eggers

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

Ralph Ineson as Puritan William in The Witch

Wow. I'm actually blown away. The Witch is one of the most extraordinarily brilliant horror films I've seen in a long time – probably since Kill List. Part pitch-perfect Blood on Satan's Claw style rural gothic, part forensically detailed historical dissertation, part Polanski-esque psychological pressure cooker, altogether it's in a league of its own.

When proud Puritan settler William (Ralph Ineson) is expelled from his New England village over some kind of religious difference, he and his family face a bleak and isolated exile scratching out a hand-to-mouth existence on the fringes of a forbidding forest. Their children, teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), younger Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and shrill creepy twins Mercy and Jonas, are forbidden to enter the forest. And with good reason, as it soon transpires, for in its twisted depths lives a witch, and she steals the family's baby.

At first it would appear that the wizened old woods-dwelling crone is a symbol for the rot that lies at the heart of this apparently God-fearing family: the lies, hypocrisy, mistrust and repressed anger which, together with a harsh and joyless life, could cause them to crack and self-destruct without any Satanic help required. Like James Hogg's devilish Gil-Martin in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the witch may exist, or she may be a personification of the guilt and fear that seem to thrive when good stern Christians are tipped into fanaticism. (The film may be set in New England and peopled by Yorkshire folk, but it often seems very Scottish in its preoccupations.)

Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin in The Witch

Or, well, she may exist, and that's pretty damned scary too. In the end, we'll never know, just as we'll never know what really happened at Salem, or Pendle, or anywhere else where accusations of witchcraft flew and lives were lost.

Based on contemporary folktales and reports, the film seems painstakingly researched and the 17th century dialogue, while sometimes a bit of a tongue-twister, is credibly delivered by a superb cast, particularly Taylor-Joy, who shines as Thomasin. And while The Witch calls to mind a multitude of other horror movies, from Häxan through to Rosemary’s Baby, Poltergeist and The Blair Witch Project, it’s really quite unique in its sinister take on family dysfunction, otherness and the infectious nature of hysteria. Compelling, distressing and almost unbearably tense, The Witch is a terrifying tour-de-force. Catch it if you can...

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