The year is 1630. The family is doing well despite exile from their village. The family's five children are all healthy, the small farm is prospering, and the weather is holding up. Then autumn comes. One gloomy afternoon, the eldest daughter, Thomasin, is baby-sitting her infant brother, Sam. She takes her eyes off him for a split second and finds him gone. Was he taken by wolves, or by the witch of the woods?
The Witch is a shocking movie, and not in the tired, cliche fashion that so many recent horror movies have adopted. It's horrifyingly violent, but the violence comes in short, painful bursts. Not much can be said about these specific scenes without giving the plot away, but believe me when I say that you'll be sick to your stomach within the first 30 minutes or so. The Witch's brand of horror is a wild ride. It’s gut wrenching and impossible to get out of your head, but it lulls you into complacency between bloodbaths and rituals.
At the same time, it's as much of a slice-of-life family drama as it is a horror movie. The mother and father wrestle between their near-fanatical faith, their love for their children, and their urge to blame their daughter for their baby's disappearance. The older children deal with boredom, isolation, and their desperate need for the company of people who don't share their family name or bloodline. Really, the only members of the family who seem content with their situation are the youngest. Jonah and Mercy are cheerfully bratty twins, roughly 6 years old, whose only friends are each other and the family's black goat. In a nutshell, no one in this little family unit is very well adjusted. This is exactly the kind of environment that allows for the paranoia, distrust, and fear that permeates every scene after the baby goes missing. The atmosphere becomes even grayer, the music more sinister, and the dialogue more fast-paced and desperate.
On the subject of the dialogue, every line of the movie was written to be as historically accurate as possible. Allegedly adapted from the journals of seventeenth-century New Englanders, the accents, topics of conversation and word choice make the audience feel as though they've literally been transported back in time to Massachusetts 1630. As someone who's seen far too many movies in this setting that used modern English peppered with a few "thee's" and "thou's," I was impressed. My only complaint is that the family, especially the father, is incredibly difficult to understand at times. I think adding subtitles may have solved this problem, but hopefully that will be an option by the time the DVD release comes around.
If you're a fan of slow-burn horror, I can't recommend The Witch enough. It's the kind of movie that takes awhile to sink in, but when it does, you can't get it out of your head. I know the year is young and it's early to make this call, but I'd argue that it's one of the best horror movies of 2016. If not, then it's definitely one of the best I've seen in years.