In Which I Get My Witch On from “The Witch”

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Last year, when I read the terrific nonfiction book The Witches: Salem 1692, my over-riding takeaway was that I’d love to write a horror screenplay that worked off the mindset and belief system of the people who testified at the witch trials, the people who actually believed in witches. Almost all witch movies tend to be silly toothless comedies (Hocus Pocus, The Witches of Eastwick) or tedious stories of Satanism from the 60s and 70s (usually made by AIP, Hammer or the Italians) where the payoff at the end of 90s minutes of boredom is that the nice people one has suspected all along are in the basement dressed in cowls and chanting in Latin. To date my favorite witch movies have been The Wizard of Oz (the villainess in which is so archetypal and comes to us so young it triggers nightmares in the lizard brain), I Married a Witch (which though it is technically a screwball comedy manages to evoke a dark, dream-like and Halloweeny atmosphere) and above all Haxan, which is the only movie heretofore that features the terrifying imagery that I want, but has the drawback of being a silent Scandinavian documentary nearly a century old.

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The imagery in Haxan, like the testimony in Stacy Schiff’s book, is drawn from primary sources…and what people back then said they saw, or thought they saw is terrifying: baby killings, bathing in blood, levitation, hags in the forest, visitations from demons disguised as animals. I very much thought I’d like to see a period movie where people believed these things could happen because they were true. But it turns out I don’t have to write this movie. Robert Eggers made it last year. A few days ago we watched his debut feature, The Witch, and I am extraordinarily impressed — I can’t imagine that it’s not a movie I’ll watch annually for the rest of my life. Not just because it accomplishes what I’ve just described, but for a long list of reasons beyond that. On a personal level it hits my sweet spot. It’s set in the Massachusetts of 1630; characters refer to “the plantation” which we may assume to be Plymouth, though it is never thus specified. Just as one of our scariest ghost stories also happens to be a Yuletide yarn (A Christmas Carol), this scary witch tale has thematic connections to Thanksgiving. As someone with deep ancestral connections to the Pilgrims, it speaks to me.

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But so much more than this, because if the director had done a lousy, cursory job I wouldn’t give two hoots about the movie. Eggers’ film is awe-inspiring. Everything about it. His background is as a production designer for theatre and film, and he has brought to the table here a level of careful research and attention to detail that is rare and glorious to behold, from the rich, Jacobean language of the screenplay; to the thick Yorkshire accents of the principal characters, to the religious, social and moral attitudes of those characters; to the design and architecture of every building, household object, and costume. Shot in the wilds of Ontario, it’s one of the few films I’ve seen that truly makes you feel like you are in the isolated frontier of 17th century America, a time when ten miles from the Atlantic ocean may as well have been the Amazon rain-forest.

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While the experience is never less than gripping, the plot is simple: the head of a Puritan family (Ralph Ineson) runs afoul of the authorities over a matter of doctrine. Rather than change his beliefs, he moves his small family (wife and five young children) outside the plantation stockade and starts a farm in the distant wilderness. Almost immediately, horrible bad luck starts to strike in wave after wave, most of it apparently centered around the family’s oldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy). According to their belief system, Satan and witchery are afoot, and while the daughter appears the most obvious suspect, the father bears a certain amount of blame for the family’s misfortunes himself. I won’t reveal who the titular witch is, or what forms the horned one takes, but just know that, as in powerful classics such as The Exorcist and The Omen, the devil and his minions do prove to be quite real. And several audacious, unthinkable things happen all in a row. Most directors would be afraid to “go there” — Eggers goes there again and again, and with total effectiveness, because we believe it.

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At any rate, Eggers knows how to do horror as well as he knows how to do history and we await his next movie with keen anticipation. I am delighted to read this morning that it is a remake of Nosferatu. 

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