Sundance 2015: The Witch first-look reaction

With Sundance 2015 in full flow, it seems the iconic indie fest has already had its first breakout hit. It might have looked unlikely on paper, but historical horror The Witch – playing in the US Dramatic Competition – is the talk of snowy Park City, leaving swathes of festivalgoers (including Total Film) trembling in its wake…

Set in mid-17th Century New England and featuring a script written entirely in archaic dialect and based on accounts from actual historical journals, The Witch follows a Puritan family – headed by gravel-voiced father William (The Office star Ralph Ineson) and sternly devout mother Katherine (Kate Dickie, aka Game Of Thrones’ Lysa) – as they are cast out, or “banish-ed”, from their settlement and forced to fend for themselves on the edge of a dark, creepy wood. When their baby son is snatched away from under their noses by the titular crone and the rest of the children start to succumb to dark forces, the exiled family begins to implode on itself, fuelled by fear, paranoia and intense religious hysteria.

There’s no doubting the raw, visceral power of Robert Eggers’ impressive debut – which spends its first two acts deftly building a real sense of creeping dread before letting it all unravel in spectacularly shocking style. Not that this is just another expertly crafted but empty chiller, though – it’s loaded with subtext, layering themes of family, fundamentalism and female sexuality on top of each other and blending the supernatural proceedings with gripping human drama.

Eggers cleverly plays around with established horror tropes and satanical cliches – lending even the traditional witches’ cackle a terrifying new lease of life and soundtracking the action at points with a shrill, almost unbearably unnerving choral chanting. The fact that it features perhaps the creepiest child twins and ageing nudist since The Shining will only add to your nightmares. If you’re a fan of supernatural horror, this is definitely one worth checking the schedules for.