Sundance: A24 Nears Deal for Hot Horror Title ‘The Witch’ (Exclusive)

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Sundance 2015 review: The Witch – a focus on themes over plot elevate it to near greatness.

“The Witch,” a horror movie set in New England some 400 years ago, a few decades before the Salem witch trials, worked hard to stay invisible ahead of its arrival at Sundance.But late Friday, the director closed a deal with Jeff Robinov’s fledgling outfit Studio 8 to write and direct an untitled medieval fantasy, THR has confirmed.The eerie, chilling period film “The Witch,” set in 1630s Massachusetts, falls uneasily between psychological drama and horror, so its commercial prospects seem limited. The film, for instance, has gone intentionally unlisted on the Internet Movie Database. “I think it can be dangerous to overhype things, especially in the horror genre,” said Robert Eggers, who directed the movie. “Mystery is fun.” But “The Witch,” which does not have its premiere here until Tuesday, burst into the Sundance spotlight on Friday following a press screening, generating strong reviews from Variety, Indiewire and other trade publications.

Laying an imaginative foundation for the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials that would follow decades later, writer-director Robert Eggers’ impressive debut feature walks a tricky line between disquieting ambiguity and full-bore supernatural horror, but leaves no doubt about the dangerously oppressive hold that Christianity exerted on some dark corners of the Puritan psyche. The helmer, an admittedly obsessive fellow who previously made ends meet working as a production designer on other directors’ indie features, has an eye for the little things that give the film both its atmosphere and authenticity. It might have looked unlikely on paper, but historical horror The Witch – playing in the US Dramatic Competition – is the talk of snowy Park City, leaving swathes of festivalgoers (including Total Film) trembling in its wake… Set in mid-17th Century New England and featuring a script written entirely in archaic dialect and based on accounts from actual historical journals, The Witch follows a Puritan family – headed by gravel-voiced father William (The Office star Ralph Ineson) and sternly devout mother Katherine (Kate Dickie, aka Game Of Thrones’ Lysa) – as they are cast out, or “banish-ed”, from their settlement and forced to fend for themselves on the edge of a dark, creepy wood. The Witch, the first feature from an abundantly talented writer/director named Robert Eggers, is terrifying well before any intimations of the supernatural. With its formal, stylized diction and austere approach to genre, this accomplished feat of low-budget period filmmaking will have to work considerable marketing magic to translate appreciative reviews into specialty box-office success, but clearly marks Eggers as a storyteller of unusual rigor and ambition.

When their baby son is snatched away from under their noses by the titular crone and the rest of the children start to succumb to dark forces, the exiled family begins to implode on itself, fuelled by fear, paranoia and intense religious hysteria. Eggers’s “debut feature impresses on several fronts, notably in the performances, historical feel and visual precision,” Todd McCarthy wrote in The Hollywood Reporter. Using the flowery language of the time (we’re not past the three-minute mark before we hear “banish-shed”) an eerie self-exiled 1630s New England family goes about its daily ritual in a haze of religious fundamentalism. This story of a family of seven cast out of their New England village and into the wilderness is drenched with atmosphere as well as convincingly odd vocabulary and diction.

A New England-born, Brooklyn-based talent who started out in the theater, Eggers has several film credits as a production/costume designer and art director, as evidenced here by his subtle yet meticulous visuals and bone-deep sense of place. Or locating special artisans to make the clapboards that sheathe that building. “They have to be hand-riven with a hoe out of white oak or red oak or they just don’t look right.

In time we learn their names – the scraggly haired father William (Ralph Ineson), his sour wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), verge-of-puberty son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), somewhat rowdy twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) and baby Sam. Sources say the new project will bear similarities to the world that Eggers, a former production designer, created in “The Witch,” but with a medieval twist. While the family is struggling to survive, their infant disappears, perhaps kidnapped by a crone conducting weird nude rituals involving blood and firelight. We had to find artisans in Massachusetts and fly them up,” says Eggers, who spent long hours in the Plimouth Plantation library doing research and enlisted British historian Stuart Peachey for added credibility. Not that this is just another expertly crafted but empty chiller, though – it’s loaded with subtext, layering themes of family, fundamentalism and female sexuality on top of each other and blending the supernatural proceedings with gripping human drama.

Eggers cleverly plays around with established horror tropes and satanical cliches – lending even the traditional witches’ cackle a terrifying new lease of life and soundtracking the action at points with a shrill, almost unbearably unnerving choral chanting. After a few days William declares the child dead, dragged off by a wolf, though we know the truth: he was snatched by a witch, one we see only in flashes of (quite alarming) imagery. A rabbit and a goat take on qualities of demonic possession, and brief but shocking supernatural interludes make a major impact: This is a nightmare film that would have been at home in Sundance’s midnight category instead of where it wound up, the main dramatic competition. Eggers said. “The Witch” was filmed in rural Ontario and was produced by Parts & Labor, a Brooklyn production company founded by two of Scott Rudin’s former assistants. “With this film, I was trying to understand the witch archetype,” he continued. “Why has she lasted even though she’s now a lame plastic Halloween decoration?”

Even if the film’s arty elements (slow pace, British accents,that impenetrable dialogue) prevent it from being sold as a straight-up horror show, Eggers (a former production designer) proves he has major chops in this psychosexual freak-out. Almost immediately we glimpse a disturbing image of the boy’s fate in the form of some unspeakable blood rite, though it’s unclear whether something satanic is actually taking place, or whether these are merely the nightmarish visions of William and Katherine, who fear that their unbaptized son is not just lost but damned. Meticulous with his sets and costumes, he expertly conjures up dread and suspense, and cuts together the weirdest moments and their freaky musical cues with aplomb. When the inconsolable Katherine isn’t burying herself in weepy, wailing prayers for Samuel’s soul, she’s bitterly lashing out at Thomasin for her perceived negligence, despite the girl’s protests that she has done no wrong. They are both aware enough to recognize that perhaps their father’s extreme austerity may not be a true path, but their indoctrination conflicts them.

But if there’s a thematic constant here, it’s that even the most good-hearted children are susceptible to impure thoughts and worldly temptations. Certainly that’s true of the younger twin siblings, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), two pint-sized mischief makers who become convinced that Thomasin is the Devil’s handmaiden, even as they seem to have formed a rather unhealthy attachment to the family goat, the ominously named Black Philip. The goat, of course, is a widely recognized symbol of Satan, and the presence of Black Philip is but one of many winking horror tropes that Eggers skillfully puts into play here: Between the bad-seed moppets and the ruined harvest, the mysterious disappearances and the frightening instances of animal misbehavior, “The Witch” is rife with intimations of inexplicable evil, of something deeply twisted and unnatural at work.

At the same time, the film grippingly ratchets up the family tension on multiple fronts, to the point that it could almost be read as a straightforward portrait of emotional and psychological breakdown — exacerbated by the parents’ certainty that every setback is a test from the Lord. “Place thy faith in God,” William instructs his children more than once, though the implication is clear that unchecked piety, far from warding off demons and monsters, can merely wind up creating new ones in their place. The result plays like a sort of cross between “The Crucible” and “The Shining” (which Eggers has cited as a key inspiration), with a smattering of “The Exorcist” for good measure.

Using jump scares only when absolutely necessary, The Witch is more reminiscent of Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills than any typical American horror flick. But in peering ahead to the Salem trials, “The Witch” also faintly echoes Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon,” another drama in which the forces of patriarchal repression and the cruel realities of agrarian life will exact a devastating future toll: We’re watching not just a private tragedy but a prequel to a larger-scale catastrophe, sowing seeds of suspicion, violence and fanatical thinking that will be passed down for generations to come.

Which is not to say things don’t go completely off the rails by the final third. (Malick’s The New World meets The Exorcist is as fine an elevator pitch as any.) What’s striking is the high-wire tension Eggers maintains. He seems fascinated by the lore and iconography of the period (written accounts from which directly shaped the film’s archer-than-thou dialogue); by the terror and superstition that flourished in the wake of widespread starvation, illness and infant mortality; and above all by a grand tradition of supernatural horror filmmaking that has long preyed on those specific fears. The picture looks as if it were shot using only available light and if that means some moments come off dark, we’re only just as spooked as the characters. There are moments when the story simply seems to be having it both ways by willfully obscuring the truth of what’s going on, and post-screening debates will center heavily around the meaning and necessity of the coda, which puts a hair-raising spin on a classic thriller convention.

This movie may be too slow and verbose to be the next breakout horror hit, but its focus on themes over plot is what elevates it to something near greatness. Not least among the director’s smart decisions was the casting of two excellent, under-the-radar British actors as the parents, whom we learn emigrated from England not too long before the events in question. Ineson brings tremendous gravitas to the role of the well-meaning but self-deluding William, and Dickie, still best known outside the U.K. for 2007’s “Red Road,” is all but unrecognizable here, allowing the odd moment of vulnerability to flicker across her pale, careworn face when it’s not twisted into a scowling mask of resentment.

The two child leads more than hold their own; whether he’s walking quietly through a clearing or, at one point, violently speaking in tongues, Scrimshaw commands the screen with magnetic ease. Capable of looking at once beamingly innocent and slyly knowing, her Thomasin increasingly becomes the movie’s voice of conscience and reason, precisely because she threatens to complicate and subvert her parents’ rigid moral universe. The hushed intensity of the drama is bolstered at every turn by the precision of the filmmaking, which bespeaks exhaustive research and painstaking execution in all departments, from production designer Craig Laithrop’s sets (detail-perfect down to the oak clapboards and reed-thatched roofs) to the hand-stitched costumes designed by Linda Muir. Blaschke favors carefully framed, naturally lit compositions, while Louise Ford’s sharp editing, though not without its elliptical moments, never lingers at the expense of narrative drive.

Crucial to establishing the film’s mood is Mark Korven’s something-wicked-this-way-thrums score, which blends eerie choral performances and dissonant strings into an unnervingly cacophonous whole. Executive producers, Lourenco Sant’Anna, Sophie Mas, Michael Sackler, Julia Godzinskaya, Chris Columbus, Eleanor Columbus, Alex Sagalchik, Alexandra Johnes, Jonathan Bronfman, Thomas Benski, Lucas Ochoa. Scott; visual effects executive producer, Lon Molnar; visual effects producer, Sarah Wormsbecher; visual effects, Intelligent Creatures; stunt coordinator, Robert Racki; line producer, Brian Campbell; assistant director, Beau Ferris; casting, Kharmel Cochrane, John Buchan, Jason Knight. Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry.

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