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‘The Witch’ brews spellbinding horror from New England lore

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Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Witch." (A24)

Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘The Witch.’ (A24)

Be patient with “The Witch.”

That might seem like a tall order at first – the movie is often slow – but it’s worthwhile to sit tight. Writer-director Robert Eggers focuses more on an unsettling mood than on bombastic scares, although there’s no shortage of disturbing imagery in his feature debut. “The Witch” masterfully blends religious zealotry, psychological drama and supernatural horror – all in one gradually paced but inevitable descent into hell.

The New Hampshire-born Eggers subtitled his film “A New-England Folktale,” and its narrative feels crafted from the regional lore. A closing title card notes much of the archaic dialogue was sampled from period documents, and Eggers shot the film in rural Canada to simulate the once-untamed backcountry of early New England.

Natural lighting and careful costume and set design authentically evoke the bygone era. It’s as if a documentary crew stepped into a time machine, stepped out 60 years before the Salem witch trials and convinced a group of Puritans to play house while they recorded.

It’s the year 1630. An English farmer named William (Ralph Ineson) is banished with his family from a colonial plantation for vaguely defined religious reasons. They pack up in a lone horse-drawn carriage and settle on the outskirts of a sprawling forest. The plot isn’t as simple as it appears.

Sure, there’s something evil lurking in these woods – take a wild guess – but “The Witch” intrigued me for the ways it introduces a sinister side to the seemingly harmless. Eggers keeps the details sparse so that we empathize with this family’s frightened confusion when the bad things start to happen. There was little exposition to help me find clarity, so I felt violently immersed in the events onscreen.

Effective camerawork accomplishes much of the disorientation. Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke linger on more subtly strange subjects – like the unblinking yellow eyes of a mysterious hare or goat. They track close behind characters as they walk through the dense woods, which Louise Ford’s deliberately scattered editing transforms into a haunting maze of jagged bushes and skyscraping pines.

The film earns many of its nightmarish moments by matching unassuming images with unnerving musical cues. In one notable scene, as the family settles into their new home, wailing violins escalate into choral screams as Eggers pans over the otherwise innocuous green of the forest before them. Mark Korven’s original score fittingly accompanies the film’s rustic aesthetic and off-kilter aura. It spells doom for these characters before we ever see any witchcraft.

Eggers posits teenaged Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) as the film’s narrative and technical focus, an affecting audience proxy for her family’s Puritan fears. She’s beginning to embrace her womanhood, an observation that scares her parents just as much as the witch’s devilry.

Burgeoning and powerful femininity poses an apparently large threat to these traditional folk. The camera catches Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) each time he sneaks a peek at her hint of cleavage, his guilty lust highlighted early on as a danger to his holy purity. Later, as the stress mounts in Thomasin’s relationship with her father and mother, they reveal their own deadly sins – his pride, hers a weakness of faith.

Taylor-Joy carries her lead role with finesse, keeping Thomasin maddeningly on the fence between trustworthy and suspicious. Ralph Ineson brings compelling God-fearing pathos to William, delivering his lines with the rumbling croak of a man rattled by life. And Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson give uncommonly excellent child performances as fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas – I found their characters equally infuriating and disquieting.

“The Witch” evokes the chillingly seductive voyeurism that pervaded Alfred Hitchcock’s work. Eggers tightly frames private conversations and stolen glances. He also spills blood sparingly, which makes grisly shots of a gored dog or a crushed chicken stand out. In his hands, these gruesome stabs feel just as intimate as the gentler sequences. The effect entranced me so much I nearly forgot this was fiction.

“We will conquer this wilderness,” William tells his son in one of the film’s first scenes. “It will not consume us.” It’s here that Eggers lays out the contract for his film – to prove that no level of devotion to God can protect those targeted by true malevolence. He knows the wilderness and wickedness consume us. So “The Witch,” a marathon that ends too soon, leaves us begging for another delicious plummet into the dark.

Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NathanFrontiero.

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