The early months of the year are not often brimming with first-rate genre fare. With most audiences either catching up on the awards bait they missed during the holidays or just avoiding the theatre altogether, studios tend to dump what could be politely referred to as leftovers, typically horror films, which have never been given much respect in the first place. Witness this year's batch: The Veil (haunted house), The Boy (haunted doll) and The Forest (haunted, um, forest).
The Witch, opening Friday, is the exception to the definite-article horror movie rule. Brutal, intense and thrilling, it is the most legitimately frightening film in years, no matter the month of its release. But the very thing that elevates writer-director Robert Eggers's film is also what could sink it at the box office. This is terror for discerning audiences, not those looking for a cheap scare in the dark on a Saturday night. The Witch's fear is all-encompassing, but the film can be a stubborn thing, too: It never fits into horror's traditional trappings.
Following a Puritan family in 1630s New England struggling to adapt to life in a remote rural outpost, The Witch is both a period drama and a twisted fairy tale with horror elements. There's little gore, the film's primary enemy remains largely unseen and there are no quips to lighten the mood. Audiences sold on a Blair Witch-style marketing campaign could be forgiven for walking out of The Witch confused, if not disappointed. But that's perfectly fine with Eggers.
"When I was developing my voice as a writer-director and trying to get a feature made, I had ideas that were so genre-less and obscure that people didn't want to make them. So I set a goal for myself that The Witch would be in an identifiable genre, but without sacrificing my creative beliefs to make it," says Eggers, who makes a remarkably confident feature debut here.
"I don't like gore for gore's sake, either," he adds. "But blood is an essential part of life. It's both overly important and overly simple, when you see this red thing coming out of someone. It's powerful, but you should use it sparingly."
Indeed, The Witch contains only subtle, but effective, splashes of crimson – including one scene near the beginning that appears to be caked in blood but on closer inspection barely reveals any violence at all. It's all part of the film's constant juggling act between the explicit and the implied, and between the external, supernatural threat facing the clan, and the even more insidious internal threat that is a family coming apart at the seams.
"I've always had an attraction to things that are dark and ghostly, but horror movies themselves were always too scary for me when I was a kid," Eggers says. "I could watch the Hammer and Universal monster stuff because it wasn't actually frightening. But … I thought, well, let's do an archetypical horror story that's also about the power that goes into fear."
To bring those power dynamics to life, Eggers cast a largely unknown cast, including British character actor Ralph Ineson as the stoic and stubborn patriarch of the family, and Argentine model Anya Taylor-Joy as eldest daughter Thomasin. On the frigid Kiosk, Ont., set, Eggers was careful not to emphasize any one vision for the film; it was merely a family drama that takes a few very dark turns.
"I can say we never felt like we were falling into some sort of horror trap," says Taylor-Joy, who, similar to her director, makes her feature debut with The Witch. "We never felt like we were making another Blair Witch; it was just a film about one family's struggle, and how isolation can make anyone jump to conclusions."
And yet the film continues to be sold as the next under-the-radar horror sensation. But if that's what must be done to get his work notice, Eggers sees no harm. During the film's premiere at last year's Sundance Film Festival, the filmmaker actually relished the opportunity to watch an audience squirm and jump.
"I'm so glad I never have to watch it again, but it was very cool to see an audience physically react to the work," he recalls. "There was one story about someone throwing up and fainting, but I think they were just drunk in a high altitude. But I'm happy to say someone was so disturbed the theatre had to call an ambulance."