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'The Witch': Eerie horror film follows pious New Englanders into the woods

The Witch is a stressful movie to watch, and that's meant as the highest praise.

The Witch is a stressful movie to watch, and that's meant as the highest praise.

It's eerie in every sense, from its isolated 17th-century New England setting to its washed-out colors to the face of its star, Anya Taylor-Joy. Her wide-set eyes and broad face give her a preternatural ability to telegraph fear and anger on an otherwise serene canvas.

She gives off a sense of innocence and light, shattered by the sinister force that lives in the woods by her family's farm. Or is that force created by the sins of the family itself?

Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin, the eldest daughter of strict Calvinists who are forced from their New England settlement for an unknown offense.

Her father, William (Ralph Ineson), contends that the settlement isn't pious enough anyway and, with his five children and wife, sets out into the wilderness.

They are ostensibly doing fine, until a day when Thomasin is looking after her baby brother Samuel. She closes her eyes during a game of peek-a-boo and opens them to find that her brother is gone.

His disappearance arouses the ire of her mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie, who has done so well playing a cracked matriarch as Game of Thrones' overattached Lysa Arryn).

When Katherine is not praying for the soul of her vanished son, she's berating Thomasin for her supposed sins, ignoring that the family is on its own because of William's refusal to compromise his piety in exchange for community. William is fully aware of his failings as a husband and father, and his attempts to make up for them only lead to further suffering for all.

The Witch draws out that suffering, and that's where the movie becomes so stressful to watch.

This is not a film where constant horrors are visited upon the protagonists. Instead, writer-director Robert Eggers makes us wait for them.

The harvest is ruined. William has traded his wife's prized possession for animal traps that catch nothing, and he's letting Thomasin take the blame.

Poor Thomasin. Her twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) are convinced she is dancing with the devil, even though they are the ones who seem to be in communion with the family goat, called Black Phillip.

Along with the goat, there are other horror tropes at work here.

Thomasin's budding sexuality is a theme, as is her brother Caleb's (Harvey Scrimshaw). But nothing feels entirely obvious.

At the movie progresses, the tension mounts. Even when nothing explicitly scary is happening, all of the parts work in tandem to make the sparse plot feel frightening: Jarin Blaschke's cinematography, the score by Mark Korven, Eggers' direction and script (culled from New England lore), and the small, phenomenal cast.

Taylor-Joy is the standout. Her anger and confusion - and her love for her family - hold the movie's center.

She's hypnotic, and so is The Witch.

When the nefarious climax arrives, it's almost a welcome release. The stress is almost over. There just needs to be a good deal of horror first.