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Review: In 'The Witch,' a haunting prequel to Salem

This photo provided by courtesy of A24 shows Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin in a scene from the film, "The Witch." (Rafy/A24 via AP)

Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a teenage girl with the usual problems: parents who can’t understand what she’s going through, siblings who constantly get on her nerves, responsibilities that limit her chances of having fun.

It doesn’t help that it’s the 17th century, and they’re Puritans — which means that not many people are having a lot of fun, anyway. But Thomasin’s family, presided over by her father William (Ralph Ineson), is in a class by itself. Exiled from New England society because of William’s nonconformist beliefs, they must survive on their own in the wilderness.

William, it turns out, isn’t much of a farmer and a worse shot — his attempt to shoot a rabbit backfires. His wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) is none too happy with their banishment, and becomes downright inconsolable when their newborn goes missing. The disappearance makes life even more miserable for Thomasin, who was charged with watching the child.

But that’s not the end of the strange goings-on, which also involve Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and twin tots Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). Inevitably, accusations of witchcraft emerge.

As often happens in these scenarios, blood is soon shed — and bodies begin to pile up.

Unsettling yet mesmerizing, “The Witch” is more of an art film than a horror flick. Writer-director Robert Eggers does nothing to contradict the notion that the Puritans were severely repressed and dangerously susceptible to superstition. But with this debut feature, he proves to be an original and accomplished storyteller with much more to offer than cheap shocks.

The casting is problematic. Ineson has the right look, but too often sounds as if he has marbles in his mouth. And as the mother, Dickie doesn’t allow for much modulation in her hysteria.

Taylor-Joy, however, brings to Thomasin a steely willfulness that’s just right for the character.

Is Thomasin “The Witch”? That would be telling.


What “The Witch” • Three stars out of four • Run time 1:32 • Rating R • Content Violent content and graphic nudity