Anyone who made the trip to the Lyceum Theatre to see John Dove‘s superlative production of The Crucible recently may find Robert Eggers’ debut film right up their street. Subtitled ‘A New England Folktale’, Abigail Williams and the other girls of Salem may well have been aware of such stories when they made their fateful accusations.

There seems little doubt that Eggers has used Arthur Miller‘s classic as a frame of reference, but he has also incorporated hints of Kubrick‘s The Shining, Terence Malick‘s pastoral elegance, and the metaphysical anxiety of Jeff NicholsTake Shelter into a densely atmospheric and supremely creepy work that is uniquely his own. That a film this individual, expertly crafted and confidently told is his debut is simply staggering.

Drawing on painstaking research, The Witch tells the tale of Will (Ralph Ineson), a devout but prideful Puritan who, along with his family, is exiled from his plantation home for questioning the strength of faith of the village elders. He moves his wife and five children to a farm by the edge of a dark, forbidding forest. As their ramshackle wagon bends and buckles over every pothole, it seems that it’s held together by the force of their religious faith alone.

Once they’re settled by the woods things go wrong. The crops fail; the youngest member, baby Samuel appears to be abducted by the titular hag; the young twins (as unsettling a pair of munchkins as have ever been committed to film) are suspiciously close to the aggressive billy goat Black Philip; and mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) can’t help but blame eldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) for the disappearance of Samuel, who vanished on her watch.

The whole cast are wonderful as the film unfolds it’s ambiguous charms. Although the witch is explicitly depicted, we are never sure to what extent what we see is real, and what is group hallucination or religious zeal turned to madness. Taylor-Joy is a revelation as Thomasin, around whom the plot increasingly winds, and Kate Dickie once again excels at portraying brittle, bruised femininity after terrific turns in Red Road and Game of Thrones.

Thematically, The Witch is a depiction of the loss of parental control. When his Puritan fervour proves insufficient in the wake of all their travails, Will’s resolve wavers. He is disobeyed by his elder children, and the twins are enthralled by Black Philip, who represents a stronger, darker, more primeval masculinity. He is later symbolically emasculated by the goat. The witch represents the feminine counterpoint. In the assumed loss of her child to the malevolent witch, and her distrust of her eldest, Katherine feels she has negated her maternal duty; a sense of dereliction forced home by a fevered scene of breastfeeding that is one of the film’s more overtly nightmarish.

The Witch will not be to be to everyone’s taste. It takes itself very seriously indeed, and it reveals its terror slowly, with complete disregard for those used to the fast, pacy jump-scares of most modern horror. If one fails to immerse themselves in the mood of it, the archaic dialogue, and the overbearing atmosphere, they could well be left cold. The marketing may not be in its favour either. The trailer and poster seem to promise something far more populist. The Witch is more arthouse in its sensibilities, but is all the better and all the more memorable for it.