“The Witch” may be tucked away under the horror genre, but it’s much more than the latest eek-eek-eek to get the teenagers clutching their dates. Subtitled “A New England Folktale,” this startling, assured feature debut from New Hampshire-born, Brooklyn-based writer-director Robert Eggers has one foot in early American history and another in legend and fairy tale. The movie’s part of a wave of smart indie horror films that include “It Follows,” “The Babadook,” Jeremy Saulnier’s upcoming “Green Room,” and anything by Ben Wheatley (“Kill List,” “A Field in England”). It also taps into themes of religious mania, family dysfunction, and the madness of crowds. Not bad for a low-budget fright flick with a cast of six.
“The Witch” opens with a family banished from the Puritan stronghold into the wilderness because they’re too religious; Eggers stages the judgment scene like something out of a Dutch painting. Cut to some time later, and their little farm in a clearing is failing. A new baby has been born, but the corn is rotten and winter is coming. The father, William (Ralph Ineson), prays and hunts. The mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), despairs. The oldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), hovers on the edge of womanhood, between duty and disbelief. Her brother, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), tries hard to be a second man of the family. There are twins (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), but they’re nasty little brats who’ve whipped up a private mythology involving the family he-goat, who’s named Black Phillip and has the devil in his eye.
The dialogue, which the end credits state is taken in part from period sources, is spare and biblical. Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin is the dramatic center, a wide-eyed maiden with a mind of her own and not sure where to put it. Plot-wise, things start to go wrong early in “The Witch,” as a game of peek-a-boo with baby Samuel ends badly for all involved, and Eggers keeps us off balance throughout. Is something, or someone, actually out there in the woods? Or is the family losing its collective mind?
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 more to be more.
What’s most impressive about “The Witch” is the way it tells a straight-up campfire freak-out while folding in darker and more unsettling themes, of pride and sin, of loss of faith and the hubris of pioneers. (“We will conquer this wilderness; it will not consume us,” says William against all available evidence.)
The dynamic of a teenage girl at loggerheads with her mother while taking emotional refuge in her father is a familiar one that seems weirdly novel in this setting. There are hints of incestuous attraction between father and daughter, sister and brother — a consequence of the family’s isolation and one more layer of sin to carry. Damnation and hell are very real and very near to these people. So is hysteria, and when events in “The Witch” reach a certain pitch of madness, the blame falls, as it usually does, on the young woman with one eye on the exit. The Salem witch trials are at least a few decades in the future, but the paranoia is already in our DNA.
Eggers doles out the horror sparingly and eerily: an image of blood in a milk pail, a moving shape in the shadow of a barn. The movie uses lamplight and hearth light to conceal as much as they reveal. But the climax, which is not for the faint of heart, occurs in broad daylight — as though the evil had no more need to hide — after which “The Witch” retreats eerily into the night once more, proceeding to a logical and terrifying conclusion even if you might have preferred it to have thrown one more twist.
No matter. The film has done its job. It has established Robert Eggers as a serious talent to watch. And it has scared the living bejesus out of you.
Written and directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw. At Boston Common, Fenway, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 92 minutes. R (disturbing violent content and graphic nudity)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.