[First off: my apologies for the past several months of silence on this site. A move halfway around the world, surgery and recovery, and an irregular work schedule have resulted in a far-too-long hiatus. But I’ll be back from now on with the monthly articles. Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you continue to find the site useful.]
There’s something about the New England woods. I was born in Maine, grew up there, and will move back for good someday. I went to camp every summer of my youth, did camping trips all over the mountains and waterways, and got to spend many, many nights on an island without electricity or running water. Even among New Englanders, I have a great deal of familiarity with and affection for the region’s vast forests; indeed, they’re one of the main reasons I’m drawn to live there.
And yet, as I believe any New Englander could tell you, there’s just something about those woods. They’re beautiful, bountiful and life-giving, but they can just as easily scare the crap out of you. In the brightness of daylight, all is well, and you can see the forest for the stunning, essential wellspring of life that it is. But at some point, inevitably, the sun reaches some undefined point in its downward arc, or a dark cloud passes in front of it, and everything changes. The dense stands of trees seem to suck in the light and absorb it, darkness becomes their defining quality, and you can never entirely shake the resurgent, childish apprehension of imminent danger lurking just out of sight in those murky depths.
And that’s how it is for us, living in twenty-first century society, with its comfortably sweeping mastery over nature. Imagine what it was like back in the olden days—for those first European settlers in the 1600s, say, arriving with their superstitions and ill-adapted skills and narrow understanding of how the world worked, trying to survive in the vast primeval forests of what they called the frontier. Small wonder that they were, by all accounts, so thoroughly terrified of the wilderness. My friends and I, in rambling conversations, have long speculated that this could make for wonderfully spooky cinema. Imagine a horror movie set back in the early colonial days, Salem-meets-Spooky-Hollow type stuff—heck, the inherent scariness of those woods would do half the work for you! And so on. I have my own filmmaking aspirations, but this one never quite settled as a movie I want to make. For all the talk of how awesome it would be, concrete ideas remained elusive, and the discussions with my friends never substantially progressed beyond, ‘Yeah, man, somebody really ought to make that movie…’
Well, wouldn’t you know it: somebody did make that movie, and it’s everything we imagined it could be, and more. That somebody was a young filmmaker named Robert Eggers, whose biography may be atypical for a feature film director, yet makes perfect sense for the director of this movie. With an innate interest in mythology, folk tales, and the occult, shaped by his upbringing in the small town of Lee, New Hampshire, Eggers went to acting conservatory in New York City and worked there for several years as a production designer, responsible for every visual detail of various film and theater productions.[i] He wrote and directed a few short films of his own, and got a chance to make that first feature, The Witch, in 2015. He has made one other since then: The Lighthouse (2019), another terrifically wild and weird horror story (this time in black and white!) about a pair of 19th-century lightkeepers losing their wits on an isolated island outpost. You’d be hard-pressed to find another filmmaker who has so quickly and confidently established such a distinctive cinematic niche: chilly psychological horror movies drawn from the dark recesses of distant (Northern) history, produced with obsessively fastidious attention to period detail. I can’t quite argue that Eggers is the best working filmmaker (whatever that means), but he may be the one who makes me, with my own particular background and interests, happiest to know that he’s out there and able to bring his singular visions to the screen. Apparently his next one will be a revenge thriller set in 10th-century Iceland… so yeah, that should be pretty awesomely unhinged.
The Witch is where it all started, though, and the movie is exceptional in many ways beyond the fact that it’s so unusual. It’s as confident and well-crafted a debut feature as you’ll ever see; from the start, Eggers evinces a born filmmaker’s talent for crafting deeply evocative images, making compelling use of every shot and minute of runtime, and implying a great deal beyond what he shows. For all its notable peculiarities, The Witch also contains a lot of fairly standard horror elements, and Eggers, working on a small budget, makes them wickedly effective without shock-CGI or elaborately gory violence—just through clever and deliberate use of filmmaking fundamentals. A clear example comes early in the first act, when the eponymous witch first makes her presence felt. Banished from their small settlement following a religious dispute, our Puritan characters have set up a homestead on the edge of the forest, when in the course of a normal day, their infant son, Samuel, inexplicably vanishes. It’s a great oh-shit moment, and Eggers does it all through simple editing: cut back and forth between Samuel on the ground and his upward view of his teenage sister, Thomasin, playing peek-a-boo, until she pops out and her laughter turns to shock, and we cut back to Samuel’s blanket on the ground, suddenly empty. This is quickly followed by the one of the movie’s few forays into the kind of grisly bloodletting that’s so common in the horror genre, as Eggers shows us Samuel’s gruesome fate. Even here, though, his approach is a marvel of forceful restraint: just a few dimly lit shots that show very little, but leave no doubt as to what that wizened old crone does to that baby.
In a broader sense, too, this is a pretty literal, largely conventional story of haunting and torment by a supernatural entity—one with shape-shifting abilities much like those we’ve encountered in countless other horror stories. As such, it inevitably contains many other classic elements: characters in dark and murky outdoor settings (once with a lantern!) spooked by faint movements off-screen, a beautiful seductress’s hand turning suddenly gnarled and nasty, characters in the grips of deranged visions, a couple of demonically possessed animals, and a wildly escalating scene in the family’s loft that deserves a place among the great possession/exorcisms in cinema. With the basic tools of the trade—evocative lighting, precise camera placement, committed performances, skillful editing and sound design—Eggers and his crew remind us how potent these familiar tropes can still be when they’re done right.
Also interesting is his use of another classic horror technique: the jump scare, or startling the audience with a sudden loud noise and/or disturbing image. As one of the easiest and most reliable ways to technically ‘scare’ the viewer, it’s often overused and often a bit of a cop-out, thrown in to paper over a lack of other, more difficult types of scares. Eggers doesn’t shy away from it, and does use it a few times in the conventional way—that is, accompanying a sudden gruesome reveal or act of violence. But most of his jump scares are more understated, lurking between moments that aren’t strictly ‘scary.’ He’s fond of dropping us into a new scene in the middle of something loud and abrupt, like an axe splitting wood or an obnoxious children’s song, making an otherwise innocuous transition into a jarring moment that jolts us out of any encroaching sense of comfort or complacency.
Editing is far from the only foundational element that Eggers and his crew employ in this effort to keep our nerves tightly wound. Another key example is Jarin Blaschke’s epically gloomy cinematography, in which direct sunlight seems almost nonexistent, every color infused with a deadening gray, and the setting stripped of every last trace of joy, fun or hope. It’s an ideal look for this story: too stylized to rightly be called realistic, and yet, as any New Englander will tell you, perfectly captures the threatening murkiness of those woods, and the dreary, gray vibe of the late autumn and early winter ‘stick season.’ Also crucial is the composer, Mark Korven, who combines low thrums of menace, classic Halloween-y oooooohhs, and dissonant percussion and strings into a score that reminds you what powerful sensations that rather campy word ‘spooky’ can evoke. With that music underlying it, even an image of a quavering rabbit, which could be cute in another context, becomes a nerve-racking harbinger of doom.
These are the key elements that make The Witch a fundamentally solid horror flick, rather than a succession of jump scares; Eggers clearly understands the difference between fright and dread, and he does an excellent job of creating and sustaining the latter. But, as is obvious from the beginning, there’s also a lot going on here that’s quite radically distinctive, and what makes The Witch a great horror movie is the way he brings these unique qualities to bear in his overarching aim of scaring us. Most conspicuously, there’s the commitment to historical authenticity, which is truly next-level: Eggers worked closely with museums on both sides of the Atlantic, consulted experts on 17th-century agriculture, and brought in a thatcher and a carpenter with esoteric knowledge of period techniques. He forbade Korven to use electronic instruments in the score, and had designer Linda Muir fashion all the costumes out of period-appropriate materials. Forced by financial incentives to film in Canada, he dragged the production deep into the wilds of Ontario before he found an acceptably exact stand-in for the New England woods. He and Blaschke even went to the great technical trouble of filming only in natural light, and lighting the indoor scenes only with candles.
Visually, this obsessive level of accuracy isn’t always apparent to the viewer, but it comes through vividly in Eggers’ remarkable script, a product of such intensive research that, as an endnote informs us, much of it was lifted directly from primary sources.[ii] I know of no other movie with dialogue quite like this: Eggers immerses us fully in the archaic, elaborate constructions of the period, yet somehow ensures that the overall meaning and progression of the scene is always fairly clear, even when the individual sentences may not be. The feat belongs equally to his talented actors: Anya Taylor-Joy in her first film role as Thomasin, several years before her high-profile turns in The New Mutants and The Queen’s Gambit; Ralph Ineson, under that beard a quintessential ‘Oh yeah, that guy…’ actor, and Kate Dickie, aka the unstable Lysa Arryn in Game of Thrones, as the parents, William and Kate; and especially the young Harvey Scrimshaw, who, despite very little previous experience, does a bang-up job of spouting complex period ramblings in the throes of demonic possession. It’s a small cast, but all of them are excellent, managing to express the intense emotions of a horror story while also delivering florid, often abstruse dialogue in a way that’s natural, convincing and comprehensible.
This a crucial factor in the effectiveness of The Witch, yet a somewhat curious one. How does such painstaking historical accuracy add so much to a movie that’s centered on a shape-shifting force of evil, and thus obviously not ‘realistic’ in any normal sense of the word? Because by immersing us so completely in these characters’ world, Eggers makes their antiquated beliefs feel a bit more grounded, and their fear and suffering more immediate, than we might expect—or, indeed, than we might be ready for. There’s a reason, I think, why horror movies in particular get so aggressively, analytically picked apart, with every last plot hole and irrational decision laid bare: unconsciously (or not), we’re looking for crutches, for reassurances against the fear that the story seeks to engender. And in a period piece, it ought to be easy, as anyone with a passing knowledge of history can intuit some ways in which the 17th century we see onscreen is not entirely accurate. But here, it’s not so simple; the authenticity of the setting and the dialogue, embodied in such skillful performances, subtly takes away a crutch that we’d instinctively reach for in a period horror movie, making the scare elements that much more effective.
Eggers does something similar with the movie’s occasional brushes with humor. They do exist, but they’re few and far between, and they arise within an atmosphere of dread so potent that any laughter is bound to be uncomfortable, nervous, and brief. Most are not true comic moments at all, but touches of brutally bitter irony: Thomasin’s mean but understandable trick on her sister Mercy, and the way it comes back to bite her; Caleb coughing up an apple after his ordeal in the forest; a goat’s udder producing blood instead of milk; or William being finally gored by the possessed goat Black Phillip and buried under the pile of wood he’s been compulsively chopping. This is pitch-dark humor, so laced with cruelty as to negate any true sense of levity—almost as if the evil spirit is not just tormenting the family, but gloating about it, toying with them, reveling in its ability to play on their worst fears and deepest desires.
And then there’s the great overarching irony of the story, and the witch’s cruelest assault of all: namely, the way it plays upon the family’s diehard Puritan faith. Eggers gives us the standard horror of people tormented by supernatural trickery and violence, but he also explores another strain of horror only tangentially related to the witch’s machinations: the internal, psychological torment of simply trying to exist in the grips of a punishingly strict religion. The characters may not notice it, but for us, there is something subtly frightening about seeing these people so utterly consumed by blind, fanatical faith, and not just because it leads them to take ill-informed and counterproductive actions in moments of crisis. We also get a forceful sense of the damage wrought by its impossible standards of conduct, warped conceptions of honor and responsibility, and brutal instinct towards self-flagellation—and how that bleeds over into self-pity and even its own form of vanity, exacerbating such flaws rather than mitigating them.
Eggers’ talent for making this sort of horror central to the movie is what makes The Witch exceptional, elevating it from a spooky midnight flick to one that can truly get under your skin. There really is an evil spirit out in the woods, but the family’s strife arises just as much out of mundane household troubles that are all too familiar: lies, breaches of trust, the burgeoning sexuality of an increasingly precocious daughter, physical and social isolation, material hardship, homesickness. As good as the actors are at portraying terror of the supernatural, two of the most unnerving lines, for me, are firmly grounded in the real world: “We will starve!” and “I want to be home…”—both masterfully delivered by Dickie, who makes the mortal terror behind the words agonizingly vivid. We can convince ourselves that witches don’t exist, but our ingrained fear of starvation and the dangerous unknown has lost very little of its power since the 1630s. Take a step back, consider the narrative more broadly, and the truly frightening thing about it becomes clear: Witch or no witch, these people are screwed. Out in the wilderness, cut off from community support, woefully ill-equipped to survive, unable to hunt or trap game, crops failing, and fervently believing that it’s all God’s just punishment…
The actual history of the English Puritans in New England is more complicated than that, of course. But set aside the qualifying context for a moment, and you’ve got to admit: that situation is just intrinsically terrifying, and not just because they were so convinced witches were real. Eggers recognized it, and with exceptional craft and attention to detail, he made it into as perfectly scary a movie as it could be.
Like so many of us, he knows what those woods are capable of. ◊
© Harrison Swan, 2021
[i] This interview with a regional journal provides some interesting information about Eggers’ background and creative process: https://www.vnews.com/Archives/2016/03-Filler/EggersQandA-ns-vn-031816
[ii] Wikipedia even goes so far as to list the movie’s language as ‘Early Modern English.’ although the more-reliable IMDb does not.