We’ve been conditioned to view supernatural scares dumped into the movie hell of February as routine and by the numbers. Based on its trailers, that may be the impression you have of “The Witch,” about a family of early colonial settlers who encounter something wicked in the woods.
But “The Witch” is anything but typical. The family’s speaking in grammatically challenging 17th-century English is only one indication. The movie’s languid pacing, ambiguous nature and low-key scares also are unusual for the genre.
The story commences after the testimony of William (Ralph Ineson), a colonial settler and family patriarch whose disagreement with church elders gets him banished. Venturing out with his wife (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and three other young ones, they forge a new home in the wild frontier.
Right away, you know this decision isn’t going to end well. Although the family rejoices in the eventual plot of land they settle, the audience can hear extremely eerie, unsettling choir moaning coming from the nearby woods. Not exactly a fortuitous omen.
Soon after, the youngest family member, an infant, disappears into thin air as Thomasin plays peek-a-boo with him. Cut to a shrouded figure absconding through the woods with the baby, accompanied by more eerie moaning on the score. Then cut to events too gruesome to recount.
From here the typical horror film would gradually reveal to the characters what we’ve just witnessed, leading to some kind of scary chase or showdown. “The Witch” has other plans. As with the score, only the audience sees the supernatural stuff, at least at first. And whenever a character has a close encounter, it’s always alone, without witnesses, without understanding and resolution. This isn’t a movie about a family under siege as much as about family members drawn, one by one, into a nightmare.
But what’s really happening to them? That’s the most interesting question that haunts “The Witch.” As more strange occurrences arise and foul events befall the family, they eventually see and hear what we do, but never in corroboration with each other. Alone during an encounter in the woods, or after some unexplained death, they’re left to wonder what happened, armed only with Bible passages and their own wits.
By this device, “The Witch” casts doubt on whether the horrors it contains are real, or representative of the wild imaginings of a seriously religious and superstitious family. With only scripture to guide them, and under immense pressure, eventually they turn on each other. You could take it as a demonstration of how religion, unbridled by the logic of science, can suggest anything to a susceptible imagination, but “The Witch” doesn’t make it that easy. At least until the final scenes, the movie doesn’t offer us any more assurances than it does the family.
That’s what’s great about “The Witch”: the lack of handholding and resistance to genre contrivances and cliché. The highly religious patriarch, William, for example, is extremely hesitant to point the finger at his family, even after much evidence against them. He begs God to blame him instead. He’s no mindless zealot, and really seems to be doing the best he can with the limited intellectual tools at his disposal.
Unfortunately “The Witch” falters in its final act, by accident or lack of awareness undoing most of the ambiguity that makes it so compelling. In style it may remind some of an earlier generation of horror films, like Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Those films also questioned whether their characters’ supernatural experiences were real or imagined, but they also had underlying themes and metaphorical value, traits “The Witch” has trouble bearing to its conclusion.
That deficiency mostly stems from the epilogue. The message to the audience is an odd, pat conclusion that seems in disharmony with everything we just witnessed, begging uncomfortable questions. Was the film made just because it would be cool to imagine what 17th-century life would have been like if witches were real? If that’s all “The Witch” amounts to, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. That’s too much toil and trouble just to play make-believe. (R) 90 min. S