Posted on Tuesday, February 16th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
With The Witch opening this week, we sat down with writer/director Robert Eggers to do something a little different. We asked him to name the three films that most influenced his tremendous new horror movie and we would discuss his work through the lens of what inspired him. For part one of this three-part series, we talked about Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining. Parts two and three, covering completely different films, will run tomorrow and the next day.
Released in 1980, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has steadily overcome an initially mixed reaction to take its rightful place as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Although based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, the film adaptation takes tremendous liberties with its source, resulting in something utterly unique and entirely unreal. It may not be King, but it is Kubrick all the way.
You can see the imprint of The Shining on so much modern horror, although the majority of its imitators mimic the visceral thrills of its final act without touching on the sense of dread the permeates the rest of the movie. The Shining works because it is a slow and steady descent into something truly terrible – the axe murders and the elevators full of blood and that final chase through the hedge maze work because we’ve been marinating in unease for two hours.
Although The Witch (which takes place in 17th century New England and follows a Puritan family that is besieged by a you-know-what) is ultimately a very different film, you can see how Kubrick’s command of pacing influenced what Eggers did with his movie, how he plants seeds early on so they can blossom into something great and terrible later on. The Witch is the best kind of slow burn. You wait for the other shoe to drop without realizing that it already dropped in the first scene. It’s a portrait of a catastrophe in slow motion: everyone is doomed from frame one and no one realizes it.
Both films have surface similarities – they’re both chilly, cruel and relentless experiences. But they share a similar darkness at their cores. Each film is about a family whose personal inhibitions and wounds are dragged to the surface by a supernatural presence. There are monsters here, but the monsters lurk in the literal and figurative shadows. All they have to do is pull one block out of the tower and watch as everyone else tears it down themselves.
Both The Shining and The Witch are about the destruction of the family unit, with the dark forces gathered at the gates only providing a few gentle nudges to create despair and chaos. Although Eggers is quick to point out that both films set out to accomplish different goals, they both occupy the same tier of horror: smart, classy, ambitious, and meticulously constructed.
Our conversation with Eggers begins on the next page.