I’ve been enjoying diving into the world of Robert Eggers’ The Witch in preparation for the second episode of Scary Thoughts. Eggers is an auteur filmmaker. The more interviews with him I watch or read, the more I like him and the movie.
He spent over four years researching early 17th century life in the Americas as well as immersing himself in Calvinist philosophy. All that work definitely paid off because everything has an intensely real feel.
Visually, it’s striking. The night scenes are especially cool because everything is lit by candles and oil lamps. This creates high contrasts in each frame, with deep blackness. In a lot of ways it reminds me of paintings of the period, especially stuff from the Dutch Golden Age. In one interview, Eggers explains that he looked at a lot of that stuff, but the Puritans weren’t really into representational art, so you don’t see much other than woodcuts depicting their lives.
The Dutch paintings at the time were very focused on the merchant middle class. It’s especially useful for historians because it depicts the day to day of average people in such detail. While the color schemes and composition of these paintings could have certainly informed the style of The Witch, they aren’t quite as horrific.
In one of several interviews I read last night, Eggers mentions Francisco Goya as the most influential out of period visual influence on the film. If you look at the paintings I’ve included in this post, you’ll see what he means.
The contrast is there, the monstrosity is there. The subjugation of peasants or old crones and the ecstasy of younger bodies bewitched by the devil makes for a fairly strong source of inspiration. I’ve always loved Goya’s paintings. I’ve never seen one up close, but it’s on my bucket list.
Art critic Arthur Danto wrote a great introduction to a book of Robert Maplethorpe’s photos called Playing With Fire. He writes about what it was like to see the famous S&M paintings that caused such a stir in the 80s, before they were reported on. He describes them as intense and certainly provocative, but without the media hysteria, they were not nearly as menacing as the politicians at the time made them out to be.
The old cliche “timing is everything” seems appropriate for this work. I think about what it would be like to have seen Goya’s work in its own time. I wonder what viewers of these paintings thought. Were they terrified like we are of modern horror films? Were they excited, shocked? Even today Satanic imagery is considered scary by the common folk. Imagine what it would be like to be an average person in the 1800s and come across this work. It must’ve been something.
It looks like The Witch is already being fast tracked to classic status. I can find nothing wrong with this film and support its inclusion in the horror canon. I have a feeling people will try to copy it, but will fail. The amount of work it takes to make something so singular is beyond most people, and even the capable will often buckle under the weight of a project so heavy.