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
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
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