Let’s say someone told you that they had just seen the next big horror-movie sensation waiting to happen — you would probably not expect them to follow that declaration with “it’s an early-to-mid 17th-century Puritan story that calls to mind the paranoia and persecution of the Salem witch trials.” And yet ever since Robert Eggers’ The Witch premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015, his self-proclaimed “New England folktale” has been building an increasingly deafening buzz thanks to its otherworldly combination of infanticide, full-moon blood rituals, and an animal imbued with the spirit of Lucifer himself. (Enough buzz, in fact, to attract the endorsement of the Satanic Temple, which will presumably gobble up group tickets like a megachurch matinee of Heaven is for Real.)
In many respects, it uncannily resembles a vintage festival hit about forest terrors, The Blair Witch Project, and has the same potential for mainstream breakout success. And yet, by focusing on a family of Calvinist farmers who are exiled from their community and are rewarded with a gray-swathed nightmare of unending shame, guilt, misery, and fear, this is not some standard-issue gothic shocker. This is an Ingmar Bergman movie with Satanic goats.
“I was trying to ignore horror films as much as possible,” says Eggers. “Real horror is about confronting darkness, not shining a quick flashlight on it and running away giggling. The genre this film follows more than anything else is a fairy tale. It’s a dark fairy tale.”
A New England native, Eggers traces the movie’s origins to a number of recurring witch dreams he’s had since his youth, thanks to seeing The Wizard of Oz at a formative age and years spent staring at the woods outside his window. Having honed his skills in art direction and production design on a number of shorts, Eggers applied his craftsmanship to an obsessive recreation of a Puritan plot circa 1630, from hand-stitched and handwoven garments to authentic farming techniques and architectural blueprints. For the script, he drew on primary sources and other historical materials, working hard to recreate the formalized language of the period. And when shooting in New England proved impossible under an already-strained budget, Eggers brought his cast and crew to the wilds of Northern Ontario — which was the closest he could get his specified tree types.
“It’s about transporting audiences to a time when this was real,” says Eggers. “Without those details, I can’t transport you. If every speck of dust isn’t right, how can I lull you into this world? It was so hard with this film, because we had to make every goddamn thing. We were trying to recreate this stuff that doesn’t exist, so it was hard — but that’s what it’s about.”