A dying boy vomits up a blood soaked apple. A corvid suckles a liminal teat. A baby is stolen by an unseen wolf. A hairy man chops up wood in the moonlight. Chuck in a Hansel and Gretel cottage, goats, twins, and both the post and pre-menstrual state of womanhood and you're dealing with a lot of horror tropes.
I say tropes and not cliches because first time director Robert Eggers has put together a spellbinding, sumptously filmed, and shit yourself scary piece of work. It sometimes feels like it shouldn't work but it always does.
Jump back nearly four centuries and William (Ralph Ineson) plays a pig-headed, if well meaning, Cromwellian patriarch whose deluded puritanical ethos is so extreme it's seen him and his family expelled from the community. The English accents suggest this is not the first time their fervour has seen them cast out and, later in the film, the older family members reminisce about time in the old country. Lincolnshire apparently.
The hard life gets harder still. The brown barren woodlands are shot both beautifully and bleakly and bring home both to us, and to William and his family, just how difficult it will be to live even hand-to-mouth in this unwelcoming environment. Eldest daughter Thomasin is looking after baby Sam one comparatively sunny day when during a routine game of peek-a-boo he goes missing.
At this point the paranormal element kicks in. We cut to a very disturbing scene of a witch smothering her broomstick with the blood of an unbaptised infant. Initial repulsion is partnered with a chaser of chill - and not for the last time.
William presents himself very much as a man of God but is riven by weaknesses. He trades his wife's family heirloom, a silver chalice, with some native Americans and lets Thomasin (the names, the names) take the rap. Poor Thomasin (brilliantly portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy) is also suspected of being responsible for the disappearance and death of baby Samuel.
Her creepy twin siblings Mercy and Jonas (easy on the twins but what did I say) further heap pressure on her and, even though they're the ones hanging out with a goat called Black Phillip, Thomasin is suspected of being a witch. We're dragged into a world of accusation and counter-accusation as the family face starvation and isolation. Their hut in the middle of nowhere offering little solace. Each long shot forces home the fear, the paranoia, and the possibility of it all ending very badly.
Even the animals aren't cut any slack. Black Phillip is backed up with a couple of sidekick goats, rabbits suggest alternative dimensions, horses bolt, and dogs disappear into the distance. Thomasin's younger brother Caleb (played by Harvey Scrimshaw, yes I know) is thrown off his steed and finds himself lost in the forest. When a lady dressed like Nigella Lawson on her way to a hallowe'en party seduces him he reaps the punishment he deserves for copping a look at his teenage sister's cleavage earlier on.
As the promise of a decent harvest recedes in almost equal proportion to William's family size the tension is mounted. Mark Korven's score, much like the film itself, can at times seem obvious. But it works. Perhaps we've seen so many tongue-in-cheek takes on this that we've almost forgotten just how effective it is to play it straight sometimes.
I've put some semi-spoilers in so I'll stop before I spoil big as I'd really like you to get along to see this film. It could be read allegorically as both a feminist text and as a treatise on religious extremism, expansionism, or even as a simple moral fable. They're all interesting things to take on board but, most of all, it's best enjoyed as a good old fashioned fright night feature. If Carl Theodor Dreyer, Rembrandt, Joseph Wright of Derby and Tobe Hooper ever made a film together this'd be it.
If this is Robert Eggers' first film I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.