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The power of horror

OUT NOW! A masterpiece, THE WITCH is a reminder of just how powerful the much-maligned (by its own devices) genre can be.

As far as film genres go, horror doesn’t exactly have a good rep. Plagued by the glut of sequels (Saw VII, anyone?); lazy, fad-prone filmmaking (is anything not “found footage” these days?); and what’s often gratuitous, fetishistic violence (see such sub-genres as slasher, torture, cannibalism…), scary movies do appear to have worked themselves into a derivative, tasteless niche in service of studios out to make a quick buck off kink-driven freaks and geeks.

Which is a shame, of course, considering what acute insights into the human psyche are enabled through careful explorations of fear, that most primal and universal of emotions. In the case of The Witch, we’re asked to relive awe in its oldest, coldest form, before science armed the mind with defenses against myths, when fairytales and reality were one. Set in 1600s New England, the story chronicles the dissolution of a newly transplanted Puritan family dwelling on the edge of a forest. Removed from home and sustained only by their beliefs, the party of seven soon descends into the depths of paranoia following a series of sinister incidents.

Eggers, working from his own screenplay penned in archaic, Scripture-flavoured English, vividly envisions a situation of peril that’s as much external as it is internal. Throughout the film, nature, animals and evil spirits slowly but surely close in on the protagonists like an unrelenting choke hold. All the while, it’s the crisis of faith, reason and love brought on by pure, naked panic that reveals the humanity of the characters and sends tingles down your spine. With its historical backdrop and classy, Rembrandt-esque look, this assured, artful debut feature defies expectations to deliver an immaculately realised, thoroughly transportive experience. And with no shortage of genuinely disturbing – not disgusting – scenes on display, including one of demonic possession that’s already for the ages, it reminds you how uniquely involving the cinematic language of terror can be when it gets under your skin and calls every suppressed memory to life.

The Witch | Directed by Robert Eggers (USA, UK, Canada, Brazil 2015) with Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson. Starts May 19