Early American Evil: Robert Eggers debuts with arty horror story of Hawthornesque New England family

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“The thing is, witches aren’t scary today. Witches are plastic Halloween decorations. They don’t do much.” Writer-director Robert Eggers has definitely brought a sense of terror back to the genre of witch movies, at least judging by the many attendees at last year’s Sundance Film Festival whom he sent into heart palpitations with his feature directorial debut, The Witch. The film garnered Eggers the coveted Best Director Award-Dramatic at the prestigious festival; over a year later, it’s hopped a broomstick to U.S. theatres to terrorize the wider moviegoing populace courtesy of A24 beginning Feb. 19.

Eggers is the first to admit that The Witch is a bit…weird. Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” it focuses on a family of Puritan farmers—who, yes, speak in period-appropriate dialect—banished from their local settlement and subsequently forced to survive alone on the outskirts of your standard horror-movie deep, dark wood. Only “alone” isn’t quite right; as it happens, they’ve moved onto the turf of a not-so-friendly local witch, who swiftly steals the family’s youngest child, an infant, out from under the nose of its oldest, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), during a game of peek-a-boo sure to have any parent squirming.

“I’m totally surprised that a pilgrim horror movie in Jacobean English is something people want to see,” laughs Eggers, whose film experience to this point was mostly as a production and costume designer. Speaking to the director, it becomes clear that The Witch—perhaps more than any number of low-budget horror indies cranked out by such outfits as Blumhouse Productions—is a very personal extension of himself.

The Witch has more of an art-house flair than your Sinisters or Insidiouses, relying more on a sustained level of creepiness—greatly enhanced by a choral-heavy score from Mark Korven—than violence and gore, very little of which is seen onscreen. “When I was a kid, I was always anxious,” Eggers recalls. “I would for months be guilt-ridden and tormented, and everything felt oppressive and scary. If you can get that into a movie, that’s fun.”

Though some might shake their fists at Eggers for daring to use the word “fun” to describe the unholy, 90-minute-long anxiety cocktail he has created, one would have a tough time arguing that his claustrophobic, psychological approach to the horror genre isn’t effective. (A scene involving Kate Dickie’s character and a crow reportedly had Sundance crowds literally screaming in their seats.)

Eggers is a horror traditionalist, preferring more “dark and gothic-themed stuff” and the artistic rigor of directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock to the splashier, lighter (in tone, if not content) fare that dominates much of the rest of the genre. Put simply, “I don’t like bad movies,” he explains. “When I’m sick and have the flu, I do enjoy Hammer horror movies, because as a kid I really liked them. But I don’t covet and praise that genre stuff. Doing everything in ironic quotes doesn’t interest me. The reason why I like horror—generally more horror literature, and even visual arts—is that it takes a look at the dark side of humanity instead of shining a quick flashlight on it and then running away giggling.”

The dark side of humanity is definitely on display in The Witch, where much of the horror comes less from the actions of the witch herself (who’s not often in the movie) than from the behavior she inspires. It’s hard not to see, in the way the increasingly fear-crazed family begins to turn on one another, the shadow of Salem looming in the distance. The subject of much of the suspicion is Thomasin, who already boasts a reputation as something of an outsider. She just “doesn’t get this Puritan stuff,” Eggers explains. Her parents’ asceticism and extreme piety don’t come naturally to her; it’s easier to imagine Thomasin as a cellphone-toting 21st-century teen than one spending every Sabbath on enforced self-denial and prayer.

“I originally envisioned Thomasin to be more awkward and homely and weird. But when Anya auditioned, it was like, you know what? She could never make it as a Puritan,” Eggers laughs. “And I realized that the character needed that to work… For us, as the audience, [the Puritan lifestyle] is also pretty exotic and hard to wrap your head around. We’re outsiders, like she is.”

Though centuries apart, Thomasin bears some strong similarities to horror heroine Jay in It Follows, another sensation at last year’s Sundance. Both are teenage girls struggling to come to terms with their burgeoning womanhood in the face of critical outside influences. It just so happens that Thomasin is struggling against her parents’ religion and the restrictions placed on women by 17th-century society and Jay’s struggling against a monster that kills you if you have sex, but to-may-toes, to-mah-toes.

Working with the child actors—Harvey Scrimshaw as eldest son Caleb, who was 12 at the time of filming, and Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger as a younger set of twins, whom Eggers notes have not yet seen the film—was less difficult than those who’ve heard the old adage about not working with kids or animals might expect. “I don’t think kids are harder to work with than adults,” Eggers argues. “It’s just that their hours are shorter. They have to be. And that creates a lot of issues.” As for keeping the children protected from the film’s more disturbing elements, Eggers relied on “a kind of Bressonian mannequin acting, where you say, ‘Hold still, open your eyes, don’t blink and breathe.’ And then with the right music and the right reverse shot, it becomes scary.”

Assembling a cast made up of not only good actors, but good people, was essential to creating the “really safe environment” that the shoot required. Eggers calls a particularly harrowing scene involving Caleb “very collaborative. The adult actors, Kate and Ralph [Ineson], were really helpful in giving Harvey everything he needed to perform in that scene. Particularly Ralph. They were drilling and drilling and drilling and working on stuff. We all knew that if that scene didn’t work, the whole movie wouldn’t.”

Aside from the emotional trauma visited on its characters, another major source of horror in The Witch is the plain fact that being a pilgrim in the 1600s was hellaciously difficult. A crop failure with winter on the way? Be prepared to starve to death. “When I went to Plimoth plantation with one of the producers, Jay Van Hoy, pretty early on in the process, he came to these reconstructions of the hovels they were living in, and he was like, ‘Man, I had no idea how hardcore this lifestyle is. This movie’s going to be terrifying just because of this stuff,’” Eggers notes.

Historical accuracy was of enormous importance to Eggers, who spent years researching and writing The Witch in between jobs as a “designer, set carpenter, whatever would pay the bills”—a total of five years, he estimates, between starting to write and locking down the final cut. “The clapboards on the house and all the outbuildings were extremely costly for our budgetary level,” he explains. “Craig Lathrop, who’s an incredible production designer, went through all kinds of different ways to figure out something that would look right, and the only way we could do it would be to have someone in Massachusetts hand-rive clapboards. Honestly, there were a lot of crazy things.” Ineson, who plays the family patriarch, “has been in a ton of big Hollywood franchise movies, albeit in small roles,” Eggers continues, “but he came onto the set and he was like, ‘Wow, I have not seen anything like this before. This is a home.’”

While Eggers admits that “historical accuracy doesn’t equal good”—and that the vast majority of moviegoers, aside from a rogue population of historian horror enthusiasts, wouldn’t even notice if he got something wrong—he defends his hewing to history as an important aspect of The Witch’s overall vision. Historically, fear of the witch was a manifestation of the fear of the real world—back in that time period, people legitimately believed that the weird old lady next door could be putting the magical whammy on their crops. It made sense, then, that a movie in which witches are real would also strive to present the environment that gave birth to them as truthfully as possible. “I wanted to understand why the witch archetype is so powerful and scary. How were innocent people being killed, being accused of being these things? What’s the deal here?” says Eggers. “And so in order to create a world where witches are a given and they’re real, we needed to have everything in that world be convincing so that the witch could be real, too.”