Mainstream horror movies go for the easy startle scare. It's cheap, universally accepted, and ultimately expected. Dread, however, is another matter and an effect that is much more difficult to create, and almost impossible to suspend over any period of time especially with desensitized audiences. This fear of the unknown is crafted through a careful balance of tone, committed actors, and a hyper-realistic atmosphere that is both familiar and jarringly foreign. Then throw in a few shocking visuals, a devilish angle, and unrelenting anguish that leaves the viewers exhausted. This is the wicked formula that The Witch has mastered. It is a symphony of dread so consuming, so well executed, and pristinely captured in bleak, desaturated tones, that it hails the wildest creature of all – the imagination – to run rampant.
It is best to go into this film unprepared as the story is rather simple and straight-forward. (Hopefully you have not studied the trailer since it features many of the film's evocative scenes.) Like much art house fare, this is a slow, steady burn that will tax many unsuspecting audiences. After all, the marketing buzz has cast a wide net to lure in mainstream ticket buyers. What they'll find is an intelligent, even scholarly film, focused on the rough chore of early settlement living. The filmmakers have gone to great lengths to recreate the historical details of the period, the often unintelligible English dialects, and the plain hand sewn costumes. Layered on top is coming-of-age story with subtle supernatural inclinations fulfilling promises of its tagline, "A New-England Folk Tale."
The Witch leaves a lasting impression, especially if you've had even a slight faith-based upbringing. Thoughts of the devil are not something to ever entertain, and here it is a palpable, formidable, and identifiable antagonist. Add to this a chilling aural landscape that echoes the wailing score of The Shining, or the lyrical cinematography that frames even an innocuous bunny rabbit as something darkly sinister, and the film resonates on a deeper, almost subconscious level. It is terrifying, and a categorical accomplishment. Easily one of the best horror films of the last decade.