An international co-production of the United States and Canada, the film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2015 and was widely released by A24 on February 19, 2016. The film received positive reviews and was a box office success, grossing $40 million against a budget of $4 million.
In 17th century New England, a man named William is banished from a Puritan plantation alongside his wife Katherine, daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, and fraternal twins Mercy and Jonas, due to a difference in interpretation of the New Testament. The family leaves the plantation and builds a farm by the edge of a large, secluded forest far from the Puritan settlement. Katherine soon gives birth to her fifth child, Samuel. Thomasin is playing a game with Samuel when he abruptly disappears. He is revealed to have been kidnapped by a witch, who crushes his body to pulp and uses it to make a flying ointment for her body.
Katherine, devastated, spends her days crying and praying. William takes Caleb hunting in the forest and confides to his son that he traded Katherine's silver cup for hunting supplies. On the farm, the twins play with the family's goat, Black Phillip, who, they claim, speaks to them. That night, Katherine questions Thomasin about the disappearance of her silver cup while implying Thomasin was responsible for the disappearance of Samuel. After the children retire to bed, they overhear their parents discussing sending Thomasin away to serve another family.
Early the next morning, Thomasin finds Caleb preparing to hunt in the forest. She forces Caleb to take her with him by threatening to awaken their father. Their dog gives chase to a hare and Caleb follows on foot, leaving the horse to throw Thomasin off unconscious. Caleb becomes lost in the woods and eventually stumbles upon the disemboweled corpse of his dog. Wandering farther into the woods, he discovers a moss-covered hovel. A seductive young woman appears at the door, lures Caleb towards her, kisses him, and grabs him with her wrinkled hand. Meanwhile, Thomasin awakens and reunites with her father, who is searching for her and Caleb. Katherine confronts Thomasin about taking Caleb into the woods and William reluctantly admits that he sold Katherine's silver cup.
That night, Caleb is found outside in the rain, naked and delirious from an unknown illness. Katherine suggests that her son's mysterious ailment is due to witchcraft and prays over him. The next day, Caleb suffers a violent seizure and expels a small apple from his mouth before dying.
The twins accuse Thomasin of witchcraft and, in retaliation, she reveals their conversations with Black Phillip. Enraged, William boards both Thomasin and the twins inside the goat house. After dark, the twins and Thomasin awaken to find a hideous naked old woman drinking a white goat's blood. Meanwhile, Katherine is overjoyed by a vision of Caleb and Samuel's return. She begins breastfeeding the infant which is revealed to be a black raven pecking at her exposed and bloody breast.
The next day William finds the stable destroyed, the goats eviscerated, the twins missing, and an unconscious Thomasin lying nearby with blood-stained hands. As Thomasin awakens, Black Phillip fatally gores William before her eyes. Both Thomasin's scream and the commotion awaken the unhinged Katherine, who blames Thomasin for her husband's death and the twins' disappearance and tries to strangle her. Thomasin grabs a nearby billhook and kills her in self-defense.
That night, Thomasin, desperate, urges Black Phillip to speak to her. The goat responds in human tongue and suddenly transforms into a darkly handsome man. He convinces her to sign her name in his book, offering her the sights of the world and the luxurious life she wants to live. Thomasin agrees, signs the book, and wanders naked into the forest with Black Phillip, now back in his goat form. She discovers a coven of witches dancing around a bonfire. The witches begin to levitate, and a laughing Thomasin joins them above the trees, completing her witch transformation.
The film was partially based on Eggers' childhood fascination with witches. After unsuccessfully pitching films that were "too weird, too obscure", Eggers realized that he would have to make a more conventional film. He said at a Q&A, "If I'm going to make a genre film, it has to be personal and it has to be good." The production team worked extensively with British and American museums, as well as consulting experts on seventeenth-century British agriculture.
Eggers wanted to film the picture on location in New England but the lack of tax incentives meant he had to settle for Canada. This proved to be somewhat of a problem for Eggers, because he could not find the forest environment he was looking for in the country. They had to go "off the map", eventually finding a location (Kiosk, Ontario) that was "extremely remote"; Eggers said that the nearest town "made New Hampshire look like a metropolis".
In order to give the film an authentic look, Eggers shot only "with natural light and indoors, the only lighting was candles". Eggers also chose to stylize the film's title as "The VVitch" in its title sequence and on posters, stating that he found this spelling in a Jacobean era pamphlet on witchcraft, along with other period texts.
In December 2013, costume designer Linda Muir joined the crew, and consulted 35 books in the Clothes of the Common People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England series to plan the costumes. The costumes were made with wool, linen, or hemp. Muir also lobbied for a larger costume budget.
Mark Korven wrote the film's score, which aimed to be "tense and dissonant", while focusing on minimalism. Eggers vetoed the use of any electronic instruments and "didn���t want any traditional harmony or melody in the score", and so Korven chose to create music with atypical instruments, including the nyckelharpa and the waterphone. He knew that the director liked to retain a degree of creative control, so he relied on loose play centered on improvisation "so that [Eggers] could move notes around whenever he wanted".
The film had its world premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, on January 27, 2015. The film was also screened in the Special Presentations section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, on September 18, 2015.
A24 and DirecTV Cinema acquired distribution rights to the film. The film received very positive reactions in advance screenings, so the studios decided to give the film a wide theatrical release in the United States, on February 19, 2016.
The film was released on Blu-ray and digital HD on May 17, 2016 in the USA. The discs' extras include outtakes, audio commentary, a documentary���"The Witch: A Primal Folktale", which summarizes the cast and crew's making of the filme���and a thirty-minute question-and-answer session filmed in Salem, Massachusetts featuring director Egger, lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, and historians Richard Trask and Brunonia Barry.
The Witch grossed $25.1 million in the United States and Canada and $15.3 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $40.4 million.
In North America, pre-release tracking suggested that the film would gross $5���7 million from 2,046 theaters in its opening weekend, trailing fellow newcomer Risen ($7���12 million projection) but similar to opener Race ($4���7 million projection). The film grossed $3.3 million on its first day and $8.8 million in its opening weekend, finishing fourth at the box office behind Deadpool ($56.5 million), Kung Fu Panda 3 ($12.5 million) and Risen ($11.8 million).
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 91% based on 274 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "As thought-provoking as it is visually compelling, The Witch delivers a deeply unsettling exercise in slow-building horror that suggests great things for debuting writer-director Robert Eggers." Metacritic reports a score of 83 out of 100, based on 46 critics, indicating "universal acclaim". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "C���" on an A+ to F scale.
Writing in Variety, Justin Chang commented that "A fiercely committed ensemble and an exquisite sense of historical detail conspire to cast a highly atmospheric spell in The Witch, a strikingly achieved tale of a mid-17th-century New England family���s steady descent into religious hysteria and madness." Yohana Desta of Mashable stated that The Witch is a "stunningly crafted experience that'll have you seeking out a church as soon as you leave the theater". Peter Travers, in his Rolling Stone review, gave the film 3 1/2 stars, and wrote of The Witch: "Building his film on the diabolical aftershocks of Puritan repression, Eggers raises The Witch far above the horror herd. He doesn't need cheap tricks. Eggers merely directs us to look inside." Stephanie Zacharek summarized the movie in Time as "a triumph of tone", writing that "Although Eggers is extremely discreet���the things you don't see are more horrifying than those you do���the picture's relentlessness sometimes feels like torment." Gregory Wakeman, writing for CinemaBlend, rated it five stars, writing that "[its] acting, lighting, music, writing, production design, cinematography, editing, and direction all immediately impress. While, at the same time, they combine to create an innately bewitching tale that keeps you on tenterhooks all the way up until its grandiose but enthralling finale." Ann Hornaday wrote in The Washington Post that the film joins the ranks of horror films such as The Exorcist, The Omen, and Rosemary's Baby, saying that The Witch "comports itself less like an imitator of those classics than their progenitor... a tribute to a filmmaker who, despite his newcomer status, seems to have arrived in the full throes of maturity, in full control of his prodigious powers." Jay Bauman of RedLetterMedia named the film his favourite film of 2016, labelling it "a masterpiece".
However, some critics as well as audiences were less pleased with the film; Ethan Sacks, of the New York Daily News, wrote that while the film does not suffer from the cinematography, acting, or setting, early on it "seems that The Witch is tapping a higher metaphor for coming of age...or religious intolerance...or man's uneasy balance with nature...or something. It doesn't take long into the film's hour and a half running time, however, to break that spell." Critics have noted that the film has received backlash from audiences regarding the film's themes and slow approach to horror; Lesley Coffin criticized A24, saying it was "a huge mistake" to market The Witch as a terrifying horror film:
Not because it doesn't fit into the genre of horror, but because of the power of expectations. The less you know about this movie the better your experience will be, but everyone who saw it opening weekend probably walked in with too much knowledge and hype to really get as much out of it as they could have if the film had the veil of mystery.
HitFix writer Chris Eggertson was critical of mainstream Hollywood; he said that The Witch "got under [his] skin profoundly", though he argued that it "Cdid not have the moment-to-moment, audience-pleasing shocks that moviegoers have become accustomed to thanks to movies like Sinister and The Purge and Paranormal Activity and every other Blumhouse and Platinum Dunes title in the canon."
Horror authors Stephen King and Brian Keene both reacted positively towards the film; King tweeted significant praise for the film, stating, "The Witch scared the hell out of me. And it's a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral", while Keene, on social media, stated "The Witch is a gorgeous, thoughtful, scary horror film that 90% of the people in the theater with you will be too stupid to understand." Jason Coffman expressed his "frustration" toward viewers who felt The Witch was "boring", saying
[T]hese detractors have targeted [these] films that work within the genre but are also examples of how genre cinema can explore concepts and themes in ways that less fantastic stories cannot. In short, the rejection of these films appears to people outside of horror fandom as a rejection of cinema as an art form.
Julia Alexander of Polygon states that The Witch "asks people to try and understand what life would have been like for a family of devout Christians living in solitude, terrified of what may happen if they go against the word of God". In The Atlantic, Alissa Wilkinson stated that many films featured at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival���The Witch, along with Last Days in the Desert, Don Verdean, and I Am Michael���reveal a "resurgence of interest in the religious" and described The Witch as "a chilling circa-1600 story of the devil taking over a devout, Scripture-quoting family". Eve Tushnet commented in an article in TAC, which was also published in First Things, that The Witch's view of witchcraft is "not revisionist" and further states that the film is "pervaded by the fear of God. There are occasional references to His mercy but only as something to beg for, not something to trust in".
An anonymous review on Plugged In, a publication of the conservative Christian organisation Focus on the Family, heavily criticised the film, stating that
William is absolutely devoted to leading his family in holiness and the ways of the Lord, which should be a good thing. But the fruit of William's rigorous focus on dogmatic piety isn't a lifting of burdens, which we're told should happen in Matthew 11:30, or a joyful celebration of living life to the fullest, as is referenced in John 10:10; rather it is deep fear and morbid meditations on hell, damnation and the forces of spiritual darkness.
Josh Larsen of Think Christian, however, offered a Christian explanation of the conclusion of the film, stating that in "encountering evil, the family in the film veers wildly back and forth between 'triumphalism' and 'defeatism,' two theological extremes" and "in refusing to allow for grace, they become easy pickings for the witch".
A spokesperson for the nontheist Satanic Temple, Jex Blackmore, claimed that A24 "approached the temple to say it believed the film would be of interest to members, though it didn't specifically ask for an endorsement". However, the Satanic Temple endorsed the film, even going as far as starting a tour for the film, which began on February 10, 2016. The Satanist group believes "[the film] will signal the call-to-arms for a Satanic uprising against the tyrannical vestiges of bigoted superstitions, and will harken a new era of liberation and unfettered inquiry", and started a website where people can "officially register themselves into 'The Book of Satan'". Nevertheless, Todd VanDerWerff of Vox stated that
A24 could have just as easily courted the approval of, say, theologians who have a fondness for Calvinism. The Witch takes place in Colonial America, and it unfolds from the perspective of period Christians who genuinely believe the woods around their tiny farm contain some sort of evil, supernatural being���and are ultimately proved correct.