We're so far along the hype/anti-hype/counter-anti-hype path in regards to The Witch, a year and more after it was the toast of Sundance 2015, that I really don't know what we're "meant" to think about it at this point. I am merely content to therefore claim that I really liked it, anyway. And I do think it's unfortunate that so many people were talking about it for so very long before the vast majority of humans had a chance to see it: it's definitely the kind of movie that deserves to be seen as blind as possible, free from hype, certainly, and also as much as possible, free from plot knowledge. Heck, I'd go as far as to say that it really should be seen free even from knowing its genre, though there's not too much you can do about that with a film titled The Witch. Not too many people are going to meander into the theater to see The Witch and expect that it's a neorealist study of Queens dockworkers, or a frothy Viennese sex comedy, or a depiction of religious mores intersecting with social mores and the toll both take on family relationships.

Ha ha, person that I just invented for the purpose of a rhetorical flourish, the joke's on you! In fact, The Witch is exactly a depiction of religious mores intersecting with social mores and the toll both take on family relationships, and for an immensely long time, it seems like all of its horror elements are solely there as a flimsy pretext for its real fascination, the wordless tension between a particularly ascetic Puritan father and his pubescent daughter, just far enough into adolescence that it's no longer possible for the family to pretend that it's not happening. In the mid-1600s in New England, mind you, which is the most fascinating and urgently oddball thing that the movie has going on: whatever natural audience might exist for an immensely slow-burning horror picture that depends for its psychological effect in the first half on our suspicion that there is nothing at all paranormal going on and depends for its terror in the second half on our conviction that there is something paranormal, after all, I cannot imagine that this audience overlaps much with the one that cares about films which re-enact the behavioral codes of 17th Century Puritan New England. Hell, I don't even know if that second audience exists in the first place.

All of which is to say, praise be to writer-director Robert Eggers, making his first feature here, for so gingerly balancing a whole bunch of things that should certainly not work together, and for cobbling together a lot of painfully well-worn ingredients into a striking original. The Witch vaguely resembles the kind of foggily-expressed European costume drama horror films of the '70s, the kind made by Jesús Franco, for example, only with the sexuality all sublimated instead of foregrounded; the difference is that The Witch is fully and necessarily American, which changes the feel of it entirely (the other difference is that The Witch is tremendously well-made, something only sometimes true of the impressionistic Euro-horror it resembles, and never ever of Franco). This is a film that seamlessly mixes moments that suggest the whole movie is a psychological projection with scenes of almost tediously straightforward realism. The marriage between these two modes is, perhaps, that the realistic characters it depicts are those of people so obsessed with matters of spirituality that the world itself adopts a psychologically threatening aspect around them.

How about I finally introduce you to those characters? The head of the family is William (Ralph Ineson), who subscribes to such a rarefied, unforgivingly Calvinist expression of Puritanism that he's been making a pest of himself even among the community of Calvinist Puritans where he and his family have settled, many years after leaving England. He is, therefore, excommunicated on the charge of unendurable pridefulness, and so he moves to a field many miles away, to build a farmstead with his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), and their children: teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), barely-teenage Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and young twins Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). The newest member of the family is little baby Samuel, and all of their woes spring from him: one day, while Thomasin is playing with him on the edge of the family's fields, right at the edge of a large and unexplored forest, Samuel goes missing in almost the literal blink of an eye. William peremptorily decides that it's the fault of a hungry wolf, Katherine instantly turns ice-cold towards her elder daughter, and we happen to see a short sequence that rather nastily implies that the unbaptised Samuel was ritually sacrificed by a devil-worshiping witch living in the woods.

The Witch with that brief scene is a very different proposition than The Witch without it, and I think to its benefit: while the film plays around with a lot of images that might very well be unreal, and the veracity of the witch in the woods is left pointedly unconfirmed for quite a long time, that's enough to let us know that something is not good, and that leaves an uneasy feeling that casts a pallor over quite a long stretch of movie to follow, in which the family moves through a wholly un-paranormal series of fights and lies and misjudgments. It becomes a chamber drama, in fact, one driven by the gulf of understanding behind Thomasin (very much our protagonist and easily the Only Sane Woman as the behavior of the rest of the family grows increasingly deranged) and her harsh, judgmental parents, driven by an obsession with controlling hierarchies (the film is anti-patriarchy in the most narrowly-defined and literal sense of "patriarchy", though the suggestion hovers over most of the movie that William is taking out on his family the frustration he feels at being emasculated by the patriarchal structure of the community that has rejected), and with a fetishisation of sexual purity that derives from the most unforgiving and loveless extremes of Protestant Christianity. The Witch never bothers to remind us of the sociological theory that witch hysteria is the expression of a fear of female sexuality, but it's quite impossible to forget about it, either.

This increasingly horrid fencing between the daughter and her parents gives The Witch plenty of charge, and the splendid performances by Taylor-Joy (who has an astoundingly cinematic face, and who should get roles in every movie from now on), Ineson, and Dickie make it a captivating human study even when it's at its least genre-apparent. But let us not diminish the fact that this is absolutely a horror film at heart, albeit one that isn't "scary" the way movies typically are - it has no moments at which anything pops up to say "boo", no shocking, terrible images, and I suppose this accounts for much of its backlash. It is filled with the terror that things are going wrong, and you can even tell exactly how things are going wrong, and it is impossible to stop them. The most frightening moments here are ones in which nothing is happening, but it's obvious that something is about to, and everything will be much worse after it does.

In fact, it's almost entirely scary theoretically. Eggers and his outstanding team of filmmakers contribute all of their energy to bringing one very particular kind of moral culture to life in front of us, at one very particular point in history - The Witch is not remotely committed to the idea that People Are People throughout history. The people it depicts are thoroughly unrecognisable to anybody remotely likely to wander into an R-rated indie horror movie. But within the first ten minutes, we have a terrifically clear idea of who these people are, how they think and feel, and how their feelings are still legitimate even if they're being expressed in an alien and even off-putting register. The ingenious, insidious thing that the film then does is to base all of its horror in what the characters themselves would find horrifying: this is a Puritan horror movie as surely as The Exorcist is a Catholic one. The difference being, of course, that more Catholics see movies in 1973 than Puritans do in 2016.

So it's not a grab-you-by-the-throat, viscerally effective kind of horror picture; it is a subtle and intellectual one, based primarily or even exclusively in its ability to generate empathy with the characters, rather than sympathy. That Taylor-Joy is so perfect as Thomasin is crucial to this working out properly; though the film explicitly seems like an exercise in building mood strictly through formal elements - through its isolated, rickety sets, frighteningly still naturalistic sound mix, and the jarring, tuneless score by Mark Korven - it's a character piece first and above all, and finding a path into those characters' heads is critical for the movie having any kind of effect at all. But Eggers and his cast chart a clear path for us to follow, and the result is one of the most stimulating and rewarding films in either of is genres - horror and costume drama - that one could hope to find, doubly so in the first third of the calendar year.