I suppose fear is subjective. What one person finds truly frightening might seem tame to another. So when I watch horror films such as The Gallows or this year’s The Boy, I have to imagine that there are some people out there who find their lazy tropes effective. Conversely, I also have to imagine that there are people out there who won’t find The Witch scary. They might think it’s slow, boring and takes too long to get to any actual scares. They’re wrong. In his feature-length debut, Robert Eggers has made one of the best horror films in ages. It’s so impeccably crafted that he makes getting under your skin look easy.

Banished from the sanctuary of a local village, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are forced to move out near the edge of a large forest in 1630s New England. One day while watching the baby, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) looks away for a brief second, which is just enough time for something sinister from the woods to abduct the infant. Believing the child to have been taken by a wolf, the family searches the area, but has no luck in finding it. William struggles to provide for his family without the support of a village, while his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) continues to mourn the loss of their child and slowly loses her sanity. But something much more sinister than a wolf lies waiting in the forest and it might already be at their doorstep.

Some of the best horror films could stand alone as great films even if you removed their genre elements. If you take away the demon possession from The Exorcist it’s still a film about a mother trying to save her sick child. If you remove the ghosts from The Shining, it’s still about a man dealing with the responsibility of being a father and a writer, while also battling his alcohol addiction. This holds true with The Witch. Take away all of the spooky things that go bump in the night and you’re still left with an engaging tale of a family trying to survive on their own in the 17th century. William is clearly out of his element, lacking the basic survival skills that a man would be expected to have in order to provide for his family in those days. His crops are dying and he’s an even worse hunter than a farmer. Could his bad luck be the result of some supernatural being? Maybe. But even if it’s not, it’s still compelling to watch. As his wife slowly begins to lose her mind and the children dream of happier times back home, it becomes clear that dozens of families could have been put in similar situations back in this time period.

But that’s not to downplay the scare factor of this truly excellent horror picture. Not since Ben Wheatley’s Kill List has a genre film been able to instill such a feeling of dread in the viewer. The cinematography from Jarin Blaschke is uncomfortably eerie from the opening scene and he continues to create truly haunting images until the film’s final sequence. Eggers is perfectly content with taking his time, slowly building tension instead of constantly berating the viewer over the head with unnecessary scary-movie tropes. This is a crescendo of horror, one that starts off slowly, but continues to build and build at a steady pace. There’s a moment where it looks like the films is ending, but it doesn’t. The final moments that follow this false ending are so uniquely scary that it’s practically guaranteed to haunt audience members long after they leave the theater.

This is an undeniable slow burn and the difficult to follow dialogue of the actors may also turn off some more casual viewers, but fans of deliberately paced horror will find a lot to love here. It’s a film that touches on religion and paranoia in refreshingly unique ways and it feels like something lifted from a nightmare that you had as a child. Aided by an impressively creepy score from Mark Korven and solid performances from the small cast, Eggers has firmly left his mark on the horror genre. He may move on to bigger projects after this one, but another horror film from him would be more than welcome. I sift through a lot of terrible horror films every year, but it all seems worth it when I finally stumble upon a true gem, such as The Witch.

The Witch receives 4/4

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