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'The Witch' Achieves Puritan American Horror Without The Gore

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'The Witch' Achieves Puritan American Horror Without The Gore

Movies

'The Witch' Achieves Puritan American Horror Without The Gore

'The Witch' Achieves Puritan American Horror Without The Gore

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With his new film, writer/director Robert Eggers wanted to resuscitate a nightmare figure from the consciousness of Puritan America. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to him about "The Witch," and how to really scare an audience.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The new film "The Witch" is a grim tale. It takes place in 1630s New England, a few decades before the Salem witch trials. The film follows a family of English Puritans. They've come to the New World to start a new life. The father, William, is so pious he's banished from their settlement, and he sets up on a farmstead of his own on the edge of a mysterious wood. Things start to go wrong. The animals get sick. The crops die. And then, the family's newborn baby disappears - and that's just the beginning.

The film is technically a horror film, but a lot of the terror you feel while watching it isn't traditional blood and gore. It's the ominous color of the film and the oppressive music.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WITCH")

MARTIN: The movie won the directing award in the U.S. dramatic category at Sundance last year and has been getting rave reviews since it came out in February.

I talked with the writer and director Robert Eggers. And he told us it was important to him to try to convey to his audience what it was like to live, not just in this time, but in this very particular culture.

ROBERT EGGERS: Modern audiences aren't extremely familiar with the worldview of pious English Calvinists from the 17th century.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I think that's probably true.

EGGERS: Yeah. And it's very crucial for us to invest in the film and believe in the witch as a given reality. The witch is a witch like a stone is a stone or a tree is a tree. In order for us to kind of get in there, we have to be able to see things through the eyes of the children who are still learning about what the rules of the world are.

So, Caleb, who's about 12 or so - he's grasped the rules a bit better. Thomasin - being a Puritan doesn't really suit her. And being a young woman, she's kind of in the lowest place you could possibly be on the social scale.

What was really interesting in doing this is to understand what a witch was in the early modern period. The evil witch manifested herself as men's fears, desires, ambivalences and fantasies about women and female power. And in making this film about Thomasin, I didn't set out to make a feminist film. But feminism or female empowerment just rises to the top. When you're dealing with witches, that's what you're doing with.

MARTIN: Why'd you want to tell a story like this?

EGGERS: I grew up in New England. And this may sound precious, but New England's past was always very much part of consciousness. And I wanted to make an archetypal New England horror story that would feel like a nightmare from the past - like an inherited nightmare that would, hopefully, connect with some ancestral fears that are knocking around in the unconscious of Western culture today that we had forgotten about.

MARTIN: Let's listen to a clip from the film. This is an interesting moment. This is a moment at night when the husband and wife in this family, Kate and William, are trying to process these travails that face them, and they are having an intimate conversation late at night. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WITCH")

RALPH INESON: (As William) We must turn our thoughts towards God, not ourselves.

KATE DICKIE: (As Katherine) He hath cursed this family.

INESON: (As William) No, he has taken us into a very low condition to humble us and to show us more of his grace.

MARTIN: So Kate is suspicious that something is not right, and William's saying just - we need to fix our gaze on God. You know, the language in this film, though, is very particular. And like watching Shakespeare or something, it took me a few minutes to get in the groove of the words and the rhythm of their speech. Clearly, you did that intentionally. You were paying attention to those kinds of details.

EGGERS: I do have a background in Shakespeare's so early modern English isn't, like, extremely foreign or terrifying to me. But writing in it certainly is complicated, so I had to study the vocabulary, and I had to study the grammar. And then I was just reading tons of primary source material and jotting down sentences and phrases and organizing them in my own sort of Puritan phrasebook - things that you would say about farming, things that you would say when you're chastising your children, things that you would say about whatever. And so early drafts for it were a kind of monstrous collage of other people's words that I then had to hone into giving all the characters their own unique voices. But certain things I did keep intact because I think that there's some weight to it. So, you know, things that the children say when they're possessed - or things that children allegedly said when they were possessed, you know.

MARTIN: And where were you reading this stuff?

EGGERS: I mean, it's stuff you can easily find. You know, Cotton Mather did a whole lot of work trying to collect all the tales of witchcraft in New England. But even, you know, other prominent and less prominent and less prominent Puritans' diaries and journals.

MARTIN: So what's interesting to me about this film - a lot is interesting - but it is horror officially. But it's more, at least to me, it felt more like a psychological thriller. I mean, you never stray into the utterly fantastical or any kind of cartoon variety of horror film. How do you walk that line? And we're talking about a witch here, so you can conjure up all kinds of images of what a witch movie is like.

EGGERS: Well, there are many people who find this is a horror film, and they're very dedicated to that. And there are many people who feel ripped off and angry that this was called a horror movie.

MARTIN: Really?

EGGERS: And it was really just a bunch of boring Pilgrims complaining and praying and chopping wood for an hour and a half (laughter). So - but for me, as far as how I'm doing this, there are a few shots that are clearly supernatural in this film. But for the most part, everything that I show that's supernatural, I try to do in a way that's subtle enough that it could be grounded in some kind of scientific fact because I feel like - look, when "The Exorcist" came out, all of that head-spinning and vomit was really powerful because we hadn't been able to see images like that. The censors wouldn't have allowed it, and additionally, we didn't have the technology to do that. But now we've gone even further than that, and I feel like when you go really, really far with all this kind of effects stuff, we're just really aware of the artifice.

So by having it be restrained, I think we can believe in it more. Also, there's a way in which I can't look into your soul and know what finally scares you, but I'm trying to articulate my nightmare moments as much as I possibly can and then hold back at the last moment, keep things in the shadows so that then you can fill in the blanks with your own imagination, and it can be more powerful.

MARTIN: Robert Eggers wrote and directed the film "The Witch." He joined us from our studios in New York. Robert, thanks so much.

EGGERS: It was really my pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WITCH")

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(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WITCH")

MARTIN: It's not as creepy, but BJ Leiderman wrote out theme music. If you liked what you heard on today's show - even if you didn't - we'd love to hear from you. You can check out our Facebook page. Or you can find me on Twitter @rachelnpr.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WITCH")

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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