A New England folk tale.

Blurring psychological and supernatural chills to spine-tingling effect, period horror movie The Witch marks a highly impressive debut for writer-director Robert Eggers.

He’s chosen a particularly apt setting for his film, 1630 New England, a time and place when people fervently believed evil to be an all too palpable threat. Puritan settler William (Ralph Ineson), recently arrived from England with his family, is one such God-fearing soul, his faith so rigorous and unbending that he has clashed with the elders of his highly religious community, a rift that leads him to exile himself and his family from their colony.

Striking out for the wilderness, he carves out a homestead on the edge of a forbidding forest. But life there proves far from Edenic. The first misfortune to befall the family occurs when the eldest child, 15-year-old Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, tremendous), is playing peek-a-boo with her baby brother. In a blink, the child disappears.

For a devout Puritan, the cause is clear: a witch is clearly to blame. The family is soon gripped by suspicion and paranoia, and the characters’ increasing mental derangement is all too credible.

Terrifying strangeness

Not everyone will be convinced by the direction the story subsequently takes, but Eggers keeps us enthralled with his film’s mix of folktale eeriness and period authenticity. His actors look their parts, too, right down to spooky sibling twins Jonas and Mercy (Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger). Much of their dialogue comes from 17th-century sources, while the film’s score fuses period instruments with modern dissonance to uncanny effect.

The dark forest that surrounds the family’s home deepens the story’s terrifying strangeness. Yet spookier still is the foreknowledge that in six decades time in another part of New England, Puritan fervour in Salem will fuel an even greater outbreak of witch hysteria.

Certificate 15. Runtime 93 mins. Director Robert Eggers