Sundance: A24 to Buy ‘The Witch’ for $1.5 Million (Updated)

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

The horror drama “The Witch,” which premiered on Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, is expected to sell over the weekend, with a number of distributors expressing interest in the supernatural film set in 17th-century New England, Variety has learned. “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. One distribution executive admired the film greatly, but indicated that it would work better as a video-on-demand and digital release, believing it might be too edgy and off-beat to succeed theatrically. 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. The Witch, the first feature from an abundantly talented writer/director named Robert Eggers, is terrifying well before any intimations of the supernatural. Witch is set in the 1600s of Puritanical New England and tells of a family that begins to turn on one another when a crops fail and a child goes missing. 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.

In a review in Variety, Justin Chang described it as a “cross between “The Crucible” and “The Shining.” Even distributors who believe that the film isn’t a fit for their slates have been full of praise for writer-director Robert Eggers and for star Anya Taylor-Joy. 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. 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. Jarin Blaschke in beautifully muted, mist-wreathed shades of gray, “The Witch” (which bears the subtitle “A New-England Folktale”) confines most of its fleet 92-minute running time to a small farm at the edge of a dark forest circa 1630 — a setting whose atmosphere of mystery and menace is no less unsettling for being possibly imagined. 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. Following the disappearance of the child and the continued poor showing of crops, the family, while quick with prayers and pious expression, slowly begins to implode.

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. William, though no less intense in his Christian devotion, is somewhat more forgiving, not least because he’s acutely aware of his own failings as a husband and father; it’s because of his stubborn pride that he and his family are now forced to fend for themselves, with a failing crop and no community support to help get them through the difficult months ahead. 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. 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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