By Jonathon Dornbush
Updated February 19, 2016 at 08:38 PM EST
Credit: Rafy
  • Movie

Just as It Follows emerged from the festival circuit to scare up winter box office as one of the most frightening horror films in years, The Witch graduates from Sundance and is poised to heat up 2016’s cold early months. The debut film from director Robert Eggers, The Witch puts a 17th-century colonial family through the wringer, as they’re cast out from their community only to experience further horrors at the hands of a witch. Crops die, the family’s infant disappears, and more mysterious issues plague them as they try to move on with their lives.

But are the trials and tribulations of this family, far removed from modern times, spine-tingling and well-crafted enough to earn the film a spot in the modern horror canon? In his A- review, EW’s Chris Nashawaty says that “what makes this chillingly creepy little black-magic folk tale work so beautifully is its evocative sense of time and place (it was shot on a shoestring in Northern Ontario). Well, that and composer Mark Korven’s unsettling soundtrack full of screechy, dissonant strings.”

For more from Nashawaty and critics around the country, scroll below.

Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly) ▲

“Anya Taylor-Joy, who looks like a long-lost, alabaster-complexioned Fanning sister, stands out as the eldest child, Tomasin. Her budding sexuality and wicked sense of humor quickly turn her into an easy scapegoat for the family’s spiraling paranoia and suspicion. But, believe me, these doomed souls have far deeper problems to grapple with than an impertinent daughter.”

Ty Burr (The Boston Globe) ▲

“Eggers worked as a production designer before making the move into directing, and you can tell: The visuals in The Witch are spooky and precise without being overstuffed. He and cameraman Jarin Blaschke know how to frame a shot so that the audience gets the information it needs while sensing things just out of sight, beyond the frame or around a corner. Maybe the film leans too heavily on outbursts of massed choral shrieks on the soundtrack, but in general everyone here understands that less is more. Until it’s time for moreto be more.”

Scott Tobias (NPR)

“The audience knows more about what’s happening than the family — or does it? The infant has met a gruesome fate in the woods, but the same paranoia that seizes the family seeps through the screen, too, making us question what the true source of evil might be. The Witch eventually arrives at an answer, but the brilliance of Eggers’ vision is how thoroughly the fantasy of an otherworldly menace merges with the reality of living under horrible duress.”

Manohla Dargis (The New York Times) ▲

“Good horror movies make fright palpable, which Mr. Eggers does with dependably spooky stuff like abrupt edits that fall as heavily as William’s (Ralph Ineson) ax and shifts in sound levels that fill silences with a choral caterwauling. But Mr. Eggers’s sharpest decision, what makes you and the movie jump is that he stays inside the characters’ worlds and heads, all disastrously close quarters.”

Justin Chang (Variety) ▲

“The goat, of course, is a widely recognized symbol of Satan, and the presence of Black Philip is but one of many winking horror tropes that Eggers skillfully puts into play here: Between the bad-seed moppets and the ruined harvest, the mysterious disappearances and the frightening instances of animal misbehavior, The Witch is rife with intimations of inexplicable evil, of something deeply twisted and unnatural at work.”

Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune) ▲

“Like the wobbly domestic unit at the heart of The Shining (a key influence on The Witch), the family here turns on itself in the face of demonic forces. I don’t want to give any more away regarding what happens in The Witch, because for once in a modern horror film, the tactics and developments are simple yet surprising, and the filmmaking captures its chosen time, place and dark corners beautifully.”

Ann Hornaday (The Washington Post)

“Eggers reportedly based his script on actual diaries and accounts from a time that predated the Salem witch trials by several decades, giving The Witch the mannered cadences and rhythms of something written on parchment rather than celluloid (or, in this case, the data-capture chip of an Arri Alexa digital camera). It isn’t until the film’s graphic, gory denouement that Eggers’s command begins to slip and The Witch enters conventional body-horror territory, its increasingly graphic imagery and keening pitch supplanting the more effective restraint and misdirection that have gone before.”

Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter)

“The film succeeds in creating a sense of complete isolation on a farm that looks very handmade, as do the unaffected costumes. The British-accented dialogue, which is filled with ‘thys’ and ‘thees’ and other less frequent forms of archaic address, possesses a credible otherness and a sense of plausible formality and religiosity (Eggers drew upon many period sources for his linguistic formulations). At the same time, the constant reminders of God’s dominant presence in these people’s lives is neatly undercut by Caleb’s (Harvey Scrimshaw) unavoidable obsession with catching glimpses of his older sister’s emerging physical attributes.”

Robert Abele (The Los Angeles Times)

“Once convinced of a scene’s possible rationality, Eggers will throw in a hacked-up poisoned apple to slap you right back into the dark allure of folklore. The dissonance, not unlike what Kubrick and Polanski mined so effectively, has its twisted appeal, never more so than when the focus is on the suspected malevolence of the family’s misbehaving goat, Black Phillip, one of the more powerfully eerie animal presences in recent movie memory.”

Stephanie Zacharek (Time)

“The Witch has been made with extreme care, and part of what makes its supernatural elements so terrifying is that Eggers is also in tune with the more ordinary challenges of just being human: This is a family out of synch with a strange new land, their hearts and minds still connected by ghostlike threads to the old one.”

David Sims (The Atlantic)

The Witch succeeds not by action, or the specter of its central monster, but by its immersive details. From the family’s sad bundles of corn, which quickly wither in the face of unknown evil, to their simple prayer sessions shot entirely by candlelight, the disaster of their new life away from civilization comes into clearer and clearer focus, starting with the mundane (hunger, crop failure) and building to the symbolic (Thomasin milks Black Philip, and all he produces is blood). This tension finally crests into a dizzying final act that flips the audience’s expectations on their heads.”

Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 84

Rotten Tomatoes: 87 percent

Rated: R

Length: 92 minutes

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickey, Harvey Scrimshaw

Directed by Robert Eggers

Distributor: A24

The Witch

  • Movie
  • R
  • 92 minutes
  • Robert Eggers