Somewhere in the dark and ominous woods, under a bleary grey sky, lives the titular figure in Robert Egger’s terrifying new horror film The Witch. He takes his time with the reveal, letting us gaze at the edge of the tree line, scanning the horizon for any signs of evil just as our characters do. Even when he does allow us a glimpse of that evil, it’s brief, grotesque, and unnerving.
Then again, Eggers – a relative newcomer writer and director who wanted to explore his own specific vision and story on film with a limited budget – wasn’t left with a lot of options. “People were interested in possibly doing some features with me, so I would write these weird, genre-less strange things,” explained Eggers one morning in Toronto. “Then they would say, ‘That’s cool, but no one is going to want to see that but you.’
“So I asked myself, ‘How can I do something that people say is in a genre where I don’t feel like I’m compromising or sacrificing? Well, I’m probably going to have to shoot this in New England ’cause that’s where I’m from and I have some support. So then it’s going to have to be about witches and going to have to be in the 17th century.’ End of story.”
Thus comes The Witch, Eggers’ atmospheric, immersive horror film that follows an exiled Christian family living near the woods where evil lurks. When the family’s newborn is abducted, their thoughts turn to devilish misdeeds – looking outward to the forest, but inwards at themselves a well. Hysteria and paranoia take over while that which wanders in the woods continues to encroach on the camp.
Eggers sat down for a conversation last fall while attending the Toronto International Film Festival, where The Witch made its Canadian premiere – not in a Midnight Madness category that features horror of all kinds, but in the Special Presentations category. The Witch made its world premiere just over a year ago at Sundance and proceeded to make its way around the festival circuit to fan and critical praise. It finally made its official theatrical release today in the U.S. and Canada.
The New England native, having penned several short stories and worked on film sets as a production designer, wrote about what he knew well and what scared him for his feature film debut. Both his personal and professional upbringing played an important role in crafting a film that relies on historical authenticity as well as a foreboding landscape.
“I went to Salem every Halloween as a kid,” said Eggers, who grew up in a picturesque painted house in the middle of the woods of a southern New Hampshire town. “I really have had nightmares about witches all through growing up and early adulthood.”
It’s not only about the subject matter, of course, but the execution, from maintaining a mood that is always eerie and unpredictable to being as genuine to the time as possible. This included writing dialogue in old English.
“It was really important for me to be immersed [in] the period, have this feeling of a puritan’s nightmare,” he continued. “I thought it would be more atmospheric and transformative and perhaps creepier to hear this language. I have this background with Shakespeare, so it’s not unfamiliar. I worked hard to make my own personal interpretation of mid-17th century English to be sort of conversational and naturalistic.” Eggers hopes this tactic forces viewers to engage more with the film and be part of that world.
As Eggers was making his inaugural foray into film, so were some of his leads. Ralph Ineson is William, the family patriarch who desperately tries to hold together his clan during this time of crisis and paranoia. Anya Taylor-Joy is Thomasin, our plagued teenage heroine and one of five children at the target of the devil’s desires. “Anya has no experience, really, but obviously her performance is extremely compelling. She is haunting and vulnerable, and you’re just drawn in to try and understand what the hell is going on for her.”
That is, of course, to say nothing of another compelling performance – or, at least, the most terrifying one in The Witch. Simply, you’ll never look at goats the same way again.