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‘The Witch’: Intelligent thriller adds new nuances to movie terror

From the very opening scene in “The Witch” — when early colonial settler William angrily confronts the elders at a plantation in 1630 Massachusetts, leading to him and his family being banished for some unknown infraction against the rules — we are immediately thrown into an ominous journey that conveys pending doom.

Director Robert Eggers has subtitled his intelligent and subtly brilliant first feature directing effort as “A New-England Folktale,” and it seems the filmmaker, who also penned the screenplay, has incorporated numerous stories about witchcraft, curses and black magic into his minimalist script. Much of what makes Eggers’ script so strong is his use of extensive research into court documents and historical records of witchcraft from the period when the film is set.

One of the many attractions of this movie is the limited use of dialogue, which is one of the ways it communicates an authentic vision of what life was like — even minus the supernatural aspects — back in the early years of the 17th Century.

As William (played by Ralph Ineson), his unhappy wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their children venture out to their banishment on the edge of a haunting (and as we quickly come to learn, haunted) forest, things quickly go downhill. Crops fail. Animals begin to act strangely and in scary ways, and things go wrong with various family members.

Central to all this is the oldest daughter Thomasin, portrayed beautifully by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy. A key scene is when she is babysitting her newborn brother Samuel — playing a game of “peek-a-boo” with him, as he lies on a blanket on the ground outside the family’s very rustic cottage.

Suddenly, as Thomasin opens her eyes to go, “Boo!” (as she’s done numerous times in a row, to make the baby laugh) — the blanket is bare and the infant has disappeared. The seed of witchcraft being in play is planted in the minds of Thomasin’s parents.

From this point on Eggers unfolds an increasingly menacing tale of terror, in such an unexpected manner that it adds new nuances to a genre we know all so well.

Mother Katherine’s depression — which we learn dates from her departure from England — becomes increasingly intense. Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) attempts to save his family by trying to pull them back together, yet he falls into an unexpectedly perilous situation which I won’t reveal here.

In watching “The Witch,” one is truly transported back in time. The use of natural light and candlelight (for the nighttime sequences in the house and barn) makes you feel and observe things much the way one would have in 1630 rural Massachusetts.

This is a very promising first feature by Eggers and showcases some exceptional acting both from veterans like Ralph Eneson (“Harry Potter” films) and his “Game of Thrones” co-star Kate Dickie — plus a very special newcomer in the form of Anya Taylor-Joy, who is really a joy to watch as she peels back the layers of the character who is Thomasin.

★★★1⁄2

A24 presents a film written and directed by Robert Eggers. Running time: 92 minutes. Rated R (for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.