Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
In our most recent edition, we brought you a horror-themed retrospective in honor of the Halloween season. Daily Yonder contributor Liz Carey wrote about the the Legend of Boggy Creek, a cult-classic monster movie with decidedly rural themes.
In the intro for that edition, I talked about how there’s a strong rural presence throughout the horror movie tradition, “from the slasher films of the 70s and 80s to the ‘found footage’ of the 90s and 00s.” The examples are many whether we’re talking about “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Blair Witch Project,” or other movies that rely on remote environments to create feelings of terror or dread.
One of the genres I didn’t get around to mentioning that is currently making a comeback is “folk horror.” So, for today’s edition, as we remain in the Halloween spirit, we turn our attention to someone who has made some very impressive contributions to the folk horror tradition in recent years: Robert Eggers, director of three movies that have all come out within the last decade, “The Witch,” “The Lighthouse” and “The Northman.”
As I’ve done once before, I again welcome my colleague Jan Pytalski to help me talk through these spooky-season selections. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Adam B. Giorgi: Jan, it was you who brought this suggestion to me and said it would be a great time to talk about the films of Robert Eggers. So, tell me, why is now a good time to take a look at these films? Why are these films so worthwhile?
Jan Pytalski: Beyond the obvious: perfect for “scary season,” I think one of the things that we both noticed about his work was that these are not exactly big studio productions but have a little bit more of an independent movie feel to them. They are original in the way they’re written, directed and produced, which I think is extremely refreshing, especially in the broadly-understood horror genre.
If our readers are not yet familiar with with his work, this is something that will be different than your average Halloween fare, I’d say. If nothing else, they’re just great to explore because there is interesting stuff going on in each.
ABG: For the uninitiated, I’ll give a super quick synopsis of the films. Eggers’s first film, “The Witch” follows a Puritan family in 1600s New England, and details their frightful encounters with a witch. It really builds on folkloric stories about witches from that pilgrim, settling era. “The Lighthouse” is Eggers’s second film and it follows two lighthouse workers and the psychological horror of their descent into madness as they work at this very claustrophobic, very isolated lighthouse. And the third film, “The Northman” is a modern take on the story from Norse mythology of Amleth, which is said to have had some influence on Hamlet, the latter being the more well known one, of course.
You don’t have to look hard to see the rural connections in these stories, whether it’s lighthouse workers and sailors, or early settlers in New England. They’re all living in a very rural environment, but Jan, I know you felt strongly about the settings of these movies. Tell us a little more about how Eggers uses his settings to craft the effect that he wants.
JP: Yeah, I think what he does so effortlessly, or at least the results feel effortless on screen, is make the familiar unfamiliar, creating a sense of the uncanny that kind of pulses out of these natural spaces. He manages to turn the rural setting, whether it be a forest in New England or a deserted island at sea, into a character all its own. It’s a tool that oppresses the protagonists of the movies, in one way or another, and creates boundaries that, upon crossing, can cause a lot of trouble.
The collaborations that he gets into with different cinematographers on the design side of each of these movies is extremely powerful and highly stylized. I think that’s particularly visible in “The Lighthouse,” where specific shots and sequences are extremely artistic, and nature is paid homage through the filmmaking. True to the medium, I always focus first on the visual experience of it, and it can make or break a movie for me, regardless of the script or other elements. In Eggers’s case, it really is a meticulously-constructed world, very true to its historical setting.
He is well known, especially after “The Northman,” — probably his biggest movie as far as promotional efforts and so on — for how he really pays attention to historical detail, but that’s true throughout all of his movies and it’s very visible and noticeable. The rural setting, in my interpretation, is the unknown that allows us to project whatever fears and horrors the characters are struggling with.
ABG: Before I came to these movies, the thing that I had heard and read about with regard to Eggers was the authenticity. You mentioned it, and it’s not just in the visual language of the film but throughout, whether it’s the architecture of the structures that they’re building for the films, or the costuming, or the dialect and mannerisms of all the characters.
These things have been meticulously researched, so that he can create that feeling of being in 1600s New England or being in the era of traditional sailors and manned lighthouses. There’s just an amount of craft on display, where that’s how you really show you care about your setting. That’s how you show you really care about leveraging it to its maximum effect, by putting in the work to understand it and use it authentically.
When we talk about rural representation, we always talk about nuance, complexity, and being in relationship with these places, and Eggers clearly cares about being in relationship with these places — and with these time periods. With regard to “The Witch,” Eggers spent some of his childhood in small-town New Hampshire, in a farming and bedroom community near the University of New Hampshire, and he would go to the old plantations and pilgrim sites in New England. He’s said a lot of those childhood experiences are what he was leveraging for “The Witch.” And, for what it’s worth, “The Lighthouse” is also set off the coast of New England. So that’s clearly something that mattered a lot to him, and he draws on that personal experience. That adds to the richness of the films as well.
Again, we’re in a Halloween frame of mind, and these are unsettling and scary films by nature, but they’re not just overt “jump scares” and the usual model. Like you said, these are not mainstream, blockbuster horror films, they’re very rich when it comes to their themes.
JP: In my interpretation of all of these movies, I feel like the the actual horror, the actual scary part always comes back to the people involved. What we see on screen is just a vessel to represent and give form to what is really going on inside our protagonists’ heads. They have different reasons for doing what they do, for finding themselves in the circumstances that they find themselves in, whether it be religion and faith, or vengeance and a quest for glory in the case of “The Northman.” I always find that what’s really scary is that Eggers always seems to be pointing gently, at least in my reading, to the brink of madness and how we get to it.
Briefly going back to our previous point, the meticulous creation of these worlds helps really convey how small and insignificant we can be when confronted with these settings, which again, serve to oppress the characters. At the core of “The Witch” is faith and religion and people’s personal struggle to stay true to their stated beliefs. It can be read on many levels, but ultimately, it’s a story of a failure to remain true to a religion that in many ways was an oppressive form of faith, in its original form.
Gradually, we see this family trying to establish itself independently from other settlers on their homestead, and they kind of buckle under the pressures of the outside world coming in. I’m being vague on purpose, because I do not want to spoil too much of the plot or specific points. You find individual characters in his movies that are on their own path and try to come out the other end, quite often failing. They’re journeys of discovery.
ABG: You talked about how a really important initial point to grab on to is the visual language of films, and regardless of what’s going on in the text of a film, if the visual craft is really strong, that that gives you something to grab on to. I would echo what you said that these are really striking films to watch, but above and beyond that they are also very psychologically rich.
Reading about “The Lighthouse,” it’s a very psychological film, and Eggers has spoken about how he was bringing Freudian and Jungian ideas into it. You talked about how there’s always something going on inside the characters, that’s communicated clearly and making them act the way they are, even in some cases as they’re thrown into major turmoil or descending into depravity or madness.
These films have very compelling character journeys. Each one at the end of the day is really a story of one character. “The Witch” is the story of this daughter of a Puritan family, “The Lighthouse” is the story of this mysterious Lighthouse worker thrown into an odd situation, and “The Northman” is about one Viking warrior and how they kind of lived through the expectations of that era. That’s really the best of both worlds when you have these strong character journeys and just a visual feast to grab on to.
The other theme that you and I were prepared to talk about was man’s relationship with nature and the world around them, and that’s obviously on full display in these films.
JP: He does a great job of showing how violent and indifferent that relationship can be. Especially when we talk about portraying rural life, nowadays it kind of easily falls into two very opposite categories; either it’s a bucolic wonderland or grim and dark and an almost dystopian landscape. He manages to show the beauty of these places without the unnecessary bucolic veneer that sort of lulls us into a sense of peace. These are tremendous landscapes that can also be extremely unwelcoming and dangerous.
It shows how in most cases we are coming in from the outside and we need to put so much energy and effort to tame our immediate surroundings. It’s particularly visible in “The Witch,” where the family starts building out the homestead and it starts from nothing and gradually builds out and it’s a sort of safe space, an island in the forest. In the case of “The Lighthouse,” it’s literally an island with a tower that protects them from the elements, and it’s very clear and obvious that anything can happen there, and in fact they end up stranded because of the elements. I personally enjoy that sort of cosmic horror on an earthly scale where we’re just tiny dots and insignificant.
ABG: In “The Witch” there are these tracking shots through the woods where the witches are said to be, tracking through the limbs and branches of the trees and the thickness of the woods. The mother tells the kids never to go in the woods, so that comes through very clearly, the danger and the peril of that environment. A couple editions back, our colleague Caroline wrote about Cottagecore, and I think anyone who got really jazzed about Cottagecore, should really watch “The Witch,” just as a counterpoint about the difficulties of homesteading, and, you know, “Good luck to you.” In “The Lighthouse,” you have the water and the wind, the ocean, and the seagulls, all of these things to create an effect and envelop the viewer in the emotional and dramatic effect that Eggers wants.
JP: I agree that animals are always an important part. It seems, at least up to this point in his movies, they’re either messengers of good or bad news; they’re never just there for your enjoyment or pleasure.
These movies can get violent or gory, but it never feels like it’s gratuitous violence. He uses it sparingly and to good effect. Something that we briefly touched on before was how the most scary things are the things you don’t see or that are barely mentioned and are signaled off screen, just beyond the frame. And, you know, that’s such a basic moviemaking technique, but it’s something that’s less and less common in major Hollywood productions, and seeing it done so well gives you that sense of good filmmaking and increases the scare level too.
ABG: It’s time for my confession, which is that historically I don’t like horror movies or scary movies much at all. I have to really motivate myself to engage. The Halloween season is one of the few times each year where I do motivate myself to watch a few. So to any readers out there who are like me, I would say, what’s great about these movies is that they are not exceedingly violent or gory or shock and awe. They exercise a lot of restraint and they really are more about creating a mood. That doesn’t mean they’re not going to make you uncomfortable and they’re not going to make you feel things that you may rather not feel, but they’re not maybe what you fear from some of the films in the genre.
They’re more about giving form to these more baseline fears that we have and immersing you in a feeling with, of course, the occasional jolts thrown at you as well, but it’s very bearable. As you said, so much of it is not premised on special effects or really shaking you in your chair viscerally. It’s exercised with more care.
Any closing thoughts you would have for folks who are maybe considering giving these films a look? What else would you say to them as they consider diving into these?
JP: Discovering Eggers might be a first step to discovering a wider group of younger directors who are interested in similar work. There’s quite a few movies that have been out in recent times, like you said, about a decade, where we’ve seen a resurgence of folklore and horror inspired by folk stories and mythology. He’s a good entry-level ticket into that sort of world.
He was fortunate in that he managed to work with great actors, and the performances in these movies are really outstanding. It’s easy, especially with movies that are not only a genre piece but also a historical piece, to go from seriousness into something that starts looking silly. It’s a tremendous amount of hard work to make dated language and dated mannerisms and all that look natural and feel comfortable for the viewer. He manages to accomplish that, whether it’s the 1600s in New England or ninth century Nordic country with Vikings, you kind of immediately get pulled in. And that’s because the casts tend to be outstanding. So if you need another argument on why to give it a shot, it’s great performances.
ABG: For those unfamiliar, you have Anya Taylor Joy, Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe. Really talented actors. So I would second that, for sure.
I’m not an expert, but when I think about the horror genre, I think it all hearkens back to a time-honored idea of sitting around a campfire or sitting in a dark space with your friends and telling scary stories, and I think the rural angle of our work is such that we often look back at the things in our heritage and in our traditions that are worth holding on to. What all three of these movies do expertly is they capture the feeling of time-honored stories told really well.
I was never intrinsically interested in witches as a concept, but the way that Eggers taps into that long human tradition of telling stories about witches and kind of the cultural footprint of it — same thing with sailors, same thing with Vikings — they are familiar, time-honored stories told really well, and I think that really makes them worthwhile.
So, for anyone who has an interest in mythology and folklore, and any number of these concepts, even historical fiction and different historical settings, we highly recommend giving these a look. They are exceedingly well timed as we enter the heart of Halloween season.
“The Witch” is currently streaming on HBO Max, “The Lighthouse” is currently streaming on Showtime, and “The Northman” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. All three films are also available to rent or buy on disc or via digital media platforms.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.