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The Witch

(2015) *** R
92 min. A24 Films. Director: Robert Eggers. Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie.

/content/films/4914/1.jpgSomething wicked this way comes in Robert Eggers' The Witch, a minimalist horror film that might well have been fueled by an anchovy pizza and a double feature of The Crucible and, given its skin-crawling witchery and Early Modern English parlance, Macbeth. Set in 1630s New England, Eggers' debut feature productively proposes a witch hunt both in the near vicinity of and within a fundamentalist family, one banished from a Puritan plantation for refusing to lighten up.

That charge rests squarely on William (Ralph Ineson, who glowers magnificently here but will always be The Office's Chris Finch to me). As patriarch, William feels the heavy weight of responsibility to provide for and protect wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and infant Sam. Once cast out of a larger community, the strain on William almost immediately elevates to an unbearable level, and trickles down to the wife and kids. First, Sam disappears, terrifyingly, from under the nose of Thomasin. Presumably, the child has been snatched by the "witch of the wood" that borders the family's humble farm, but a cloud forms and naggingly lingers over Thomasin, who unwisely spooks Mercy and Jonas one day by claiming to be the witch.

William worries over "corrupt nature," preaching, "We must conquer this wilderness. It cannot consume us." True enough, but it is corrupt human nature, and human supernature, that properly threaten the family, as well as the innocence of teenage Thomasin and Caleb. Caleb has begun taking guilty notice of Thomasin's blooming pubescence, his own eager but repressed sexuality ripe for the plucking of the witch. Seen in incarnations ranging from naked, hunched hag to speedy red riding hood to Siren-esque vamp, the witch consumes more than one of the family, with a shuddery choir wailing the agony and the ecstasy of unleashed paganism, before the credits roll (credit to Mark Korven for the invaluably unsettling score, and Jarin Blaschke for the Dutch Masters-meets-Bosch cinematography).

Eggers teases the idea that he's crafting an allegory on religion as a insidiously viral source of paranoia but rather insistently presents supernature in matter-of-fact terms. One could argue everything we see is in the heads of thoroughly indoctrinated individuals who (at times inadvertantly) betray each other, but it involves doing backflips of narrative justification to read the story—okay, okay, fable—on these terms. As per its subtitle "A New-England Folktale," the end titles explain that "This film was inspired by many folktales, fairy tales and written accounts of historical witchcraft, including journals, diaries and court records. Much of the dialogue comes directly from these period sources."

That sounds good on its face, but it's also another way of saying that The Witch throws everything at the screen and hopes all or most of it will stick. Much of it does, deriving primal power from centuries-old archetypes, but the scattershot approach also means that the film ends up being something of a greatest-hits anthology of creepy imagery rather than a fully realized fable of its own. By telling the story of a witch who's kept off screen almost as much as Jaws, but also throwing in demonic "Black Phillip" (apparent inhabitor of the family's black goat), The Witch diffuses its focus somewhat. While the true horror, as in The Shining, resides in the family itself and not the genre Macguffin plaguing it, by the end it's all too easy to imagine (unsanctioned?) sequels dumbing down The Witch's psychological tortures. Meantime, enjoy The Witch for what it is: a refreshingly baroque respite from the jump-scares that typify today's horror.

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Aspect ratios: 1.66:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 5/17/2016

Distributor: Lionsgate

Lionsgate does a terrific job presenting delicate material in its Blu-ray + Digital HD release of The Witch. The image provides all the subtle texture and shadow detail the source provides, and the stylized, desaturated color scheme is nicely handled by this faithful digital-to-digital transfer, which nevertheless manages a soft-lit filmic look. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix also plays in the space between subtlety and precision, focusing on the prioritization and clarity of dialogue (clear, that is, if you have no trouble with the rural-English-dialect delivery of Early Modern English) but also providing LFE oomph to choice thumps in the effects and music, as well as careful use of the soundfield for you-are-there immersion, particularly the case the closer you get to animals and the great outdoors.

In bonus features, the disc provides some thoughtful context in a chatty audio commentary with director Robert Eggers and the half-hour "Salem Panel Q&A with Cast and Crew" (27:59, HD) featuring Eggers, Anya Taylor-Joy, Brunonia Barry and Richard Trask. Rounding out the disc are the standard EPK-style featurette "The Witch: A Primal Folktale" (8:28, HD) and a Design Gallery (HD).


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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