Putting back the disturbing details in fairy tales

The Witch, which stars Anya Taylor-Joy, has been acclaimed by critics for its mood of dread.
The Witch, which stars Anya Taylor-Joy, has been acclaimed by critics for its mood of dread.PHOTO: UNITED PICTURES INTERNATIONAL

In this region, horror films have plenty of evil females, such as pontianaks and vengeful demons with long flowing hair, a variant of which is seen in the Japanese hit Ringu (1998).

Sometimes, a European-influenced movie might feature a woman ghost, such as Mama (2013) or Crimson Peak (2015), but scary women are scarce in American horror.

And for some reason, American movies have never taken witches seriously. In Disney's Maleficent (2014), for instance, the witch-queen is not intentionally cruel, just impetuous and misunderstood.

Writer-director Robert Eggers, 33, changed the status quo with The Witch (2016), a critically lauded work of period horror that secured the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival last year, as well as prizes at other competitions.

Speaking to The Straits Times on the telephone from New York, the first-time feature film-maker thinks back to the Disney movies of his youth, such as Snow White (1937) and how it scrubbed away the darkness and danger of the original fairy tale.

"Victorian culture turned into 20th-century American culture. Everything gets sanitised," he says.

"I loved Disney as a kid, but he took everything interesting out of the fairy tales."

Eggers explains that in his film, he tries to trace fairy tales back to their source. In the story, set in the 17th century, a family of devout Puritans leave England for the new land of America. They settle on land far from the village. There, nursery rhymes and everyday animals such as goats and ravens take on a new, disturbing dimension.

"In the period that I'm depicting in Western culture, the real world and the fairy world are the same thing. Folk tales weren't told just to keep kids from playing in the woods. Witches were not a belief; they were an understood fact," he says.

Eggers spent most of his 20s working in production design for the stage, and spent four years researching and writing his screenplay before it was produced, delving into the lore of the witch.

He understands the fascination that Asia has with the female form of evil and felt the same for her Western counterpart, which was built around a fear of women.

"In the early modern period of the film, it became all about the fear of female power and the dark feminine, encompassing all the fears that Western culture had about women in the 17th century," he says.

Witches, for example, displayed a form of "inverted motherhood" - they would nurse animals at the breast, for example, explains Eggers.

While the film has been acclaimed by critics for its mood of dread and how it tries to get into the minds of its 17th-century characters, some have been less impressed by the absence of jump scares and chases, elements found in mainstream horror.

Eggers says he is aware of the controversy.

"There are people who don't think it's fair that this is marketed as a horror film. My wife's 16-year-old cousin says, 'I like the film, but it should be called a supernatural thriller, not a horror film, sorry.'"

•The Witch (M18) is showing at The Projector, Golden Mile Tower, Beach Road.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2016, with the headline 'Putting back the disturbing details in fairy tales'. Print Edition | Subscribe