TALE OF THE UN­EX­PECTED

Robert Eg­gers did not fore­see his de­but film, The Witch, cast­ing a spell on all man­ner of au­di­ences, writes Si­mone Fox Koob

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - The Witch David Strat­ton

In an early scene of The Witch, a mist set­tles over a cob­bled farm­yard as an ado­les­cent girl plays peek-a-boo with her baby brother. The pair are sit­ting at the edge of a silent for­est and the child gur­gles as his sis­ter cov­ers her eyes. Sud­denly there is si­lence. The young girl glances down and the baby is gone. She looks up in hor­ror as the wind marks the path of some­thing sin­is­ter re­treat­ing quickly into the pines.

The en­su­ing fate of the child un­folds in a scene that is not for the faint-hearted. And nei­ther is Robert Eg­gers’ di­rec­to­rial de­but, The Witch — a chill­ing take on the New Eng­land, Salem, witch trial-era night­mare.

It says a lot about the per­me­at­ing dark­ness of this pe­riod of North Amer­i­can his­tory that Eg­gers, who grew up in New Eng­land in the 1980s, still can’t shake the dark Pu­ri­tan folk­tales that orig­i­nated in his home­town more than three cen­turies ago.

“My ear­li­est dream or night­mare I can re­mem­ber was about witches,” the 34-year-old tells Re­view from Brook­lyn. “Be­ing from New Eng­land, which is very much witch coun­try, the Salem witch tri­als were drilled into our heads.

“There were so many kids like me who had this strong idea of New Eng­land’s myth­i­cal past — kids who thought the woods be­hind their house (were) haunted with witches and Pu­ri­tans … You can’t help but have New Eng­land’s past as part of your con­scious­ness.”

Thus Eg­gers’ first fea­ture film has be­come a kind of cathar­tic ex­er­cise, dis­sect­ing the mythol­ogy and religious zealotry that de­fined the lives of English set­tlers in New Eng­land in the 17th cen­tury and con­tin­ues to res­onate.

De­voutly religious pa­tri­arch Wil­liam (Ralph Ine­son) and his fam­ily are ban­ished from their plan­ta­tion in New Eng­land in 1630. They re­lo­cate to the edge of a brood­ing for­est to set up their own farm. “We will con­quer this wilder­ness,” Wil­liam says in one of many lec­tures to his fam­ily. “It will not con­sume us.”

But as the har­vest fails and poverty sets in they be­come in­creas­ingly pan­icked, fear­ing God has brought down his un­for­giv­ing judg­ment on them all.

When baby Sa­muel goes miss­ing, blame is quickly shifted to the el­dest daugh­ter, Thomasin. In fact the child, only a few months old, has been snatched by a hag­gard witch, re­vealed in shad­owy snip­pets of a moon­lit for­est, where the nude, grey-haired woman con­jures dark magic.

The fam­ily’s grief and para­noia over Sa­muel’s dis­ap­pear­ance and be­lief that the devil is among them lead them to suc­cumb, one by one, to the evil forces swirling around the small farm.

The Witch had its pre­miere at the be­gin­ning of last year at Sun­dance, where it gen­er­ated buzz af­ter it earned Eg­gers the di­rect­ing award in the dra­matic cat­e­gory. This was fol­lowed by a se­ries of pos­i­tive re­views. “A finely cal­i­brated shiver of a movie,” said The New York Times.

It was an un­ex­pected del­uge of praise for Eg­gers, who be­gan his artis­tic ca­reer off-of­fBroad­way, de­sign­ing sets and cos­tumes for ex­per­i­men­tal theatre pro­duc­tions. The el­e­va­tion of his de­but film from an in­die hor­ror flick, made on a bud­get of just over $3 mil­lion, to an in­ter­na­tion­ally re­leased film is some­thing he didn’t see com­ing.

Pub­lic re­sponse to the been mixed.

“Peo­ple have many

film, how­ever, has

dif­fer­ent

in­ter­preta- tions,” says Eg­gers. “I’ve had mod­ern witches, Wic­cans, neo-pa­gans, satanists, colo­nial his­to­ri­ans, hip­ster film peo­ple, ran­dom ma­jors in middle Amer­ica, born-again Chris­tians and even an email from a Calvin­ist pas­tor, who all had dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the film and all liked it.

“I’ve also had the same kinds of peo­ple have dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions and hate the film.”

There was one un­ex­pected en­dorse­ment. Last year, a New York or­gan­i­sa­tion called the Satanic Tem­ple rec­om­mended the film to its fol­low­ers, say­ing The Witch “will sig­nal the call to arms for a satanic up­ris­ing against the tyran­ni­cal ves­tiges of big­oted su­per­sti­tions, and will [bring forth] a new era of lib­er­a­tion and un­fet­tered in­quiry.”

Eg­gers has only this to say in re­sponse: “It’s nice to have fans.”

The film has also brought at­ten­tion to its star, model turned ac­tress Anya Tay­lorJoy, who gives a strong per­for­mance as the older daugh­ter Anya Tay­lor-Joy and Har­vey Scrimshaw, above, and Ralph Ine­son, left, in scenes from The Witch; di­rec­tor Robert Eg­gers, below Thomasin. An­other fan favourite seems to be the 95kg billy goat Black Phillip, who has his own Twit­ter ac­count and was the sub­ject of a Hol­ly­wood Reporter ar­ti­cle based on an in­ter­view with the goat’s trainer.

“I mean, I think it’s great, I think it’s funny,” Eg­gers says with a laugh. “I think so much of it is to do with the fact we are so used to CGI an­i­mals th­ese days, so I think this is why this goat per­for­mance is stand­ing out so much.”

More im­por­tant to the Brook­lyn-based di­rec­tor is The Witch’s suc­cess as a pe­riod drama, with its sharp at­ten­tion to his­tor­i­cal de­tail el­e­vat­ing it from a run-of-themill hor­ror movie to some­thing more com­plex.

Eg­gers says the con­cept heav­ily re­lied on this ac­cu­racy to cap­ture the hu­man­ity of the fam­ily’s para­noia with the slow-build su­per­nat­u­ral hor­ror. “I wanted to make an ar­che­typal New Eng­land hor­ror story, but I wanted it to go back to the very, very, very be­gin­ning of New Eng­land,” he says. “I had this idea that white Western cul­ture was so prim­i­tive in North Amer­ica at this time that it was al­most, for a brief pe­riod of time, like the Middle Ages.”

Most of the di­a­logue in The Witch comes from court tran­scripts, di­aries, let­ters and prayer books from the era.

“It was a lot of work,” Eg­gers says. “It took four years to write and re­search this thing, and the re­search con­tin­ued into the year of mak­ing the film. It started out in the li­braries and most of the pri­mary source ma­te­rial that I used was not par­tic­u­larly rare.

“But in un­der­stand­ing the agri­cul­tural prac­tices, how they changed, you have to talk to the his­to­ri­ans and mu­se­ums to kind of un­der­stand how to do that stuff ac­cu­rately.”

Eg­gers’ next pro­ject will see him again mine his­tor­i­cal ma­te­rial for in­spi­ra­tion. He de­scribes the film as a “me­dieval knight epic” called The Knight. There are also ru­mours he is at­tached to a re­make of FW Mur­nau’s 1922 silent hor­ror film Nos­fer­atu and a minis­eries about Rasputin.

Th­ese projects would be a step up from this small-bud­get hor­ror film, shot in frosty North­ern On­tario, mod­estly at­tempt­ing to con­jure “an in­her­ited Pu­ri­tan night­mare that would awaken half-for­got­ten an­ces­tral fears”.

“If we’d got­ten The Witch on four screens, that would be a vic­tory,” Eg­gers says. “I didn’t ex­pect any of this.” is re­leased na­tion­ally on Thurs­day.

re­views The Witch — Page 19

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