Thursday, March 8, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #29. "The Witch" (2016)

Anya-Taylor Joy
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

The Witch
Released: February 19, 2016 
Release Number: 29
Directed By: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Plot: A family in 1630s New England is torn apart by the forces of witchcraft, black magic and possession.

There was a groundswell for A24 in 2016, in part because of the surprising output that they had planned. It would be the year of Best Picture winner Moonlight and the infamous farting corpse movie Swiss Army Man. But before those films could arrive, they took a gamble on a horror film that shook certain audiences to their core while becoming divisive to others. Director Robert Eggers' The Witch was an attempt to make a faithful movie about witches in the 17th century. With accurate details and a cast that included the first credited performance by Anya Taylor-Joy, it was a film that took the zeitgeist in ways that A24 hadn't quite achieved in some time. It was a film that not only captured an audience, but it became endorsed by satanists. It was proof that there wasn't an audience that A24 couldn't appeal to. It just took the right material.

Throughout his life, Eggers had a fascination with witch culture. He would study their culture as a child and began to hold a deeper understanding of their place in history. When he created The Witch, he was currently in the midst of pitching studios various projects that were seen as too niche. Despite his struggle, he felt that it was important for whatever genre film he did to actually be personal. Through some luck, he settled upon what would become The Witch. His investors liked the idea and he soon began on production. During this time, he consulted several pieces archived from the 1630's, an era before the Salem Witch Trials, and found plenty of rich symbolism in the animals and rituals, along with the use of language that would come to define the dialogue spoken.

Taylor-Joy was the first actor cast, as Eggers was charmed by her audition video. He also landed Game of Thrones actors Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie to play Taylor-Joy's parents. Eggers had always planned to shoot the film around the actual location in New England area, but found that the lack of tax incentives created an issue. He settled for Kiosk in Ontario, Canada, which was "off the map" and made New Hampshire look like a metropolis. It was isolated with the nearest city far away. In order to maintain authenticity, Eggers would have his cinematographer Jarin Blashcke use natural lighting. Likewise, the score by Mark Korven would feature instruments that evoked the era, as Eggers prohibited electric instruments. He also claimed that the goat who played Black Phillip had more scenes, but was an unruly creature and thus was limited in screen time. Finally, for a film about supernatural occurrences, Eggers claimed that nothing problematic in that way happened on set.

The film premiered at Sundance in January of 2015 to a largely positive response. A24 and DirecTV would acquire the rights to the film and eventually settled on a theatrical release following positive screenings throughout the rest of the year. With a horrifying trailer to their credit, the film had some of the studio's biggest anticipation behind it since Ex Machina. The results paid off, as the film managed to acquire an $8.8 million opening after a predicted $5-7 million opening in 2,046 theaters. It opened fourth at the box office behind Deadpool, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Risen. For what it was worth, it was one of the highest charting debuts for an A24 film in years, even if many of their other films could be considered sleeper hits. The film would also go on to gross $40.4 million internationally, another high point for the studio. 

Much like the film's overall box office performance, The Witch was also another film from A24 to score a high percentage on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, this time earning a 91%. Critics were largely positive about it, such as David Simms of The Atlantic writing that "The movie's first-time director, Robert Eggers, blends authenticity with black magic, and the result is giddying." Meanwhile there were few like Amy Nicholson of MTV who suggested the film's faults as "Like the Puritans themselves, the movie shuns drama. It has too much moral virtue for jump scares." On a whole, Cinemascore would find that audiences generally rated the film a C-, and the discourse around it would continue to be vague. Some would question whether it was a true horror movie since it was paced slowly and lacked conventional elements of horror. Others, like author Stephen King praised the movie and wrote on Twitter that "The Witch scared the hell out of me. And it's a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral."

The discussion of religion around the film also divided audiences, with Christian critics tending to analyze its view of faith in a complicated light. Many, such as Josh Larsen of Think Christian, noted that its view of triumphantism and defeatism gives the film a certain substance that otherwise seems missing. Likewise, the film appealed to audiences in the Satanic Temple. While Eggers didn't seek endorsement, the group would take the film and create multiple screenings for it. This would lead to the creation of a website that encouraged audiences interested to sign "The Book of Satan," or become a member. In that way, The Witch became part of a bigger cult than any A24 film before. It had a certain danger now behind it that usurped other achievements, such as Eggers' two Independent Spirit Awards for Best First Film and Best First Screenplay. His love of horror would ironically lead to a remake of another demonic film in the vampire masterpiece Nosferatu. He finds it a bit odd that he's doing it so soon, but it may help to solidify his outsider image.

The Witch may have been one of A24's more divisive mainstream hits, but it managed to leave a strong imprint of what the studio could do. It was a horror film that drew in audiences, whether they be writers like Stephen King, or groups like the Satanic Temple. The film left an impact, also helping to launch the career of Anya Taylor-Joy. It was evidence that even after four years that there was still room for them to surprise and even define the zeitgeist in memorable ways. Up next would be an equally staggering entry, as the studio tackles a Holocaust drama with Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer in the lead role. It would also be the return of The Captive director Atom Egoyan with a film that may showed just how dedicated he was to hard hitting subjects. Remember may be a minor film in the A24 catalog, but it was also evidence that their dramatic well would run deep and tackle any subject, so long as the right people were behind it.

Up Next: Remember (2016)

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