Every year, there’s one horror movie that stands above the rest as the one you absolutely can’t miss. In 2014, it was the Australian thriller, The Babadook. 2015’s was the surprise hit, It Follows. Less than two months into 2016, it’s already clear that we’ve found this year’s standout in Robert Eggers’s The Witch. You’ve probably even heard the hype leading into its release, evidenced by its stellar 88% Rotten Tomatoes score and across-the-board positive buzz from critics. To get to the bottom of this hype, we saw the movie for ourselves, and then sat down with Eggers to talk over his approach to a movie that’s already inspiring controversy.
The Witch marks Robert Eggers’s first try at writing and directing, having spent most of his early career as a production designer. Talking to him though, you get the sense that this is a man who’s always thinking from the perspective of a meticulous and honest filmmaker. As he describes it, “I like things that are told earnestly,” a refreshing viewpoint in a post-modern cinema-scape that has most of our stories wrapped in five layers of meta-commentary and irony.
The Witch is nothing if not an earnestly told story. Eggers’s process for getting his movie made was an arduous five-year journey of research, writing, and set design, all culminating in a movie that puts you right there in 17th-century New England with our main characters. All this is, of course, a concerted effort from our director:
I can’t just do “good design” or “accurate design.” I need to be articulating this with such specificity, that it’s as if I’m articulating my own personal memory. Without being obsessive over the details, there’s no way you can articulate those details and transport your audience.
It’s not about digging into specificity for the sake of being true to the time period for Eggers. More than that, it’s about making the audience feel like they’re a part of the story themselves. When you convey that in a horror movie, suddenly you’re able to terrify them in ways you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
The movie itself is a deeply unsettling 93 minutes. It follows a family living in 17th-century New England, left to fend for themselves in the wilderness after they’re banished from their settlement. Things fall into sharp decline from there, following the disappearance of the youngest of the five children, blamed on the daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Soon, crops are failing, animals are going crazy, and it’s not long before the family turns on itself out of sheer terror and uncertainty (two of the driving factors behind the witch-hunts that time period has become known for).
The true victory of this film isn’t simply in the “what” of its scares, but the “how.” Eggers is a director who understands the nature of fear, and how that’s directly tied to a sense of withholding. “You have to keep the monster in the shadow for it to retain power. If you see it, there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore,” he points out. Think back on all the truly great horror cinema, and you see that same filmmaking device over and over again. The monster you can’t see is far more terrifying than the one you know, and The Witch thrives on this philosophy.
All this ties back into Eggers’s own fascination with a bygone era of folktales, before witches were co-opted into “a stupid, plastic Halloween decoration.” He adds, “In order for us to be afraid of the witch we need to go back into the 17th century and be inside the minds of these English Calvinist settlers.” At the time, this was an actual shared fear humanity held. Combine that with a classic folktale aesthetic, and Eggers deposits his audience directly into that terror. Much like those fairytales of old, “the point doesn’t matter, it just is. It’s human, it’s mysterious, and it’s enigmatic and it just speaks to you.” The Witch in turn delivers an eerie and disquieting piece of filmmaking that we’ll likely look back on at the end of the year as 2016’s marquee horror film.
The Witch releases nationwide February 19, 2016.
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