Last week, “The Witch” burst from Sundance like a bat out of Hell to herald a bold new filmmaking voice in Robert Eggers, who rightly won the best director prize for his elemental, impeccably crafted horror — dare I say it — masterpiece. The first-time filmmaker has concocted a witchy brew of madness that bears the mark of a seasoned auteur. Painterly images, ye-olde English, oozing ominous portent and pitch-perfect period detail drive this chilling tale of a family of 17th-century New England settlers pushed to hysteria and violence by the malevolent, titular force nesting in the woods. Anya-Taylor Joy gives a breakout performance as the teenaged daughter of puritan parents, played by the brutally committed Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson.
Director Eggers knows when and how to draw upon his filmmaking forbears to take his story to ravishingly beautiful, terrifying heights. “The Witch” is simply one of the best horror films of the decade, and here are five films that inspire it. (We’ve kept the spoilers for “The Witch” pretty light.)
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“The Shining” (dir. Stanley Kubrick)
Kubrick’s fingerprints smother “The Witch,” from the gilded, candlelit tableaux of “Barry Lyndon” to Ligeti and Penderecki’s ghostly choral orchestrations in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But “The Shining” is the most obvious precedent here, with Eggers cribbing that film’s creeping dolly zooms, head-swirling Steadicam shots and sudden, stately acts of violence. “The Witch,” like “The Shining,” also involves a family’s collective descent into hysteria, as the entire foundation of the family crumbles beneath them, and the father-figure, and everything that symbolizes, is someone you certainly cannot trust. An appalling bait-and-switch encounter in the woods recalls the bathtub lady reveal of Kubrick’s film. And naturally you can find creepy twins in both movies.
Mungiu’s 2012 Romanian psychodrama is a demonic possession film without the demons– or at least not the demons of the horror genre we’ve come to expect. This is a starkly shot rendering of a real-life exorcism case involving nuns that simmers across two stately hours before exploding into a raw, arresting final scene that is truly scary. “Witch” director Eggers spent years researching folklore of the early modern witch and the sinister goings-on of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, using that framework to mount his own religiously rooted historical fiction that presupposes: what if the witch, the figment of a repressed society’s paranoid imagination, were actually real?
“Cries and Whispers” (dir. Ingmar Bergman)
“The Witch” bears the mark of a handful of other Bergman titles–the classic-era setting of “The Virgin Spring,” the hallucinatory terrors of “Hour of the Wolf”–but “Cries and Whispers,” lensed by the inimitable Sven Nykvist, is among the film’s strongest visual influences. Frenzy, madness and female hysteria form the fabric of Bergman’s 1972 chamber drama. “Witch” DP Jarin Blaschke, who also lensed the woozy images of last year’s yet-to-be-released “Unicorns,” films women coming and going through dark corridors with similarly menacing unease and hyper-control. Both films touch upon female sexuality’s capacity to destroy.
“The Exorcist” (dir. William Friedkin)
It’s hard to talk about “The Witch” in relation to the seminal 1973 horror film without spoiling the malicious surprises Eggers has up his sleeve, but it’s safe to say that both films unravel into supernatural, possession-movie territory. But, where someone like James Wan carelessly threw such tropes into his overcooked stew of postmodern pastiche “The Conjuring,” director Eggers nods to the history of this genre in one particular scene that is so batshit-upsetting, you may have to laugh to remind yourself, it’s only a movie…
“The Crucible” (dir. Raymond Rouleau)
Finally, you can’t map “The Witch”‘s influences without alluding to at least one of the several screen versions of Arthur Miller’s allegorical 1963 play about the Salem Witch Trials. Further viewings of “The Witch” will unfurl its true metaphoric meanings, but the communal, puritanical madness sparked by what appears to be witchcraft surely tears from the cloth of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1957 screenplay adaptation.
Ryan Lattanzio is a staff writer for TOH! at Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter.