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Early Reviews Portend Sundance Breakout in Stylish Historical Horror ‘The Witch’

Early Reviews Portend Sundance Breakout in Stylish Historical Horror 'The Witch'

Park City is open for business, and word on the street says buyers are already courting edgy, historical horror throwback “The Witch.” Distributors caught an early glimpse of the film on Thursday ahead of its Tuesday afternoon premiere at Eccles Theatre.

Produced by Parts and Labor’s Lars Knudsen and Jay Van Hoy and directed by Brooklyn-based designer turned first-time director Robert Eggers, this US Dramatic Competition entry looks to be a witchy brew of style and scares. Taking cues from Kubrick and Bergman, “The Witch” recreates Puritan New England, just before the religious hysteria of the 1692 Salem trials, where a colonial family has settled on a fledgling farm at the edge of a forest. Doom and dread set in as food grows scarce, someone goes missing and a malevolent, wood-dwelling presence encroaches.

The cast includes Anya Taylor Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw. Though the early trade reviews, rounded up below, stand divided, an elegant-seeming horror pic such as this should have no trouble landing distribution at Sundance this year.

Variety: “A fiercely committed ensemble and an exquisite sense of historical detail conspire to cast a highly atmospheric spell in ‘The Witch,’ a strikingly achieved tale of a mid-17th-century New England family’s steady descent into religious hysteria and madness. Laying an imaginative foundation for the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials that would follow decades later, writer-director Robert Eggers’ impressive debut feature walks a tricky line between disquieting ambiguity and full-bore supernatural horror, but leaves no doubt about the dangerously oppressive hold that Christianity exerted on some dark corners of the Puritan psyche. With its formal, stylized diction and austere approach to genre, this accomplished feat of low-budget period filmmaking will have to work considerable marketing magic to translate appreciative reviews into specialty box-office success, but clearly marks Eggers as a storyteller of unusual rigor and ambition.”

The Hollywood Reporter: “Writer-director Robert Eggers’s debut feature impresses on several fronts, notably in the performances, historical feel and visual precision, but the overall effect is relatively subdued and muted, probably too much so for mainstream scare fans. With its novelty value and presumed enthusiastic critical support in some circles, however, cult status and nice returns in smartly judged specialized release look likely.”

Indiewire: “The authenticity of these characters’ struggles is complimented by an expressionistic style that extends their emotional state to the world around them. With its murky, candlelit forest scenery and the mysterious cult antics found within, ‘The Witch’ calls to mind the similarly disorienting storytelling approach of Ben Wheatley’s ‘Kill List’ by way of ‘The Crucible.’ Ultimately, though, Eggers is primarily indebted to Stanley Kubrick for the movie’s haunting cinematic tapestry, with the grey-toned imagery of the menacing woods matched by a shrieking orchestral score and elegant framing strategies that create the sense of a fully defined world.”

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