Thanks to a disturbing period setting, a star turn from a newcomer, and the scariest goat in movie history

By Clark Collis
February 15, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
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Who knew the 17th century could be so terrifying? At the Sundance Film Festival last year, a little period film, The Witch, emerged with major buzz. But for its newbie star, Anya Taylor-Joy, the experience took on an eerie edge, given the way audiences regarded her after screenings. “People were staring at me with a glassy-eyed look on their faces,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, it begins!’ ”

Taylor-Joy plays Thomasin, the eldest child of Puritan parents (Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie) who establish a farmstead in the New England wilderness in the 1630s, 60 years before the Salem witch trials. After a sorceress steals Thomasin’s baby brother, the family descends into paranoia and religious mania.

First-time filmmaker Robert Eggers admits he was inspired by The Shining and imbues the film with a sense of dreadful isolation while also finding true horror in its rapidly disintegrating — and numerically diminishing — family unit. Eggers, a New Englander himself, further amps up the terror by painstakingly re-creating a time when witches were believed to be a genuine danger. “With the dialogue, I’m using things that people actually said in the period,” he says. “The family farm is made with correct building materials, and the costumes are hand-stitched based on patterns of actual clothing.”

Taylor-Joy (who had a recurring role on BBC America’s Atlantis) first read the script the night before her audition. Big mistake. “I completely panicked,” she says. “The words gripped my heart with an icy cold hand. I didn’t sleep a wink.”

The film was shot in very rural Ontario. “We’d drive two hours to set and there was no cell service, no Internet,” says Taylor-Joy. “[But] it made us bond in a way that we wouldn’t have if we had shot it in a place where we could have an outside life.” 

WARNING: See the intense trailer for The Witch below

Perhaps the scariest part of the production was a goat named Charlie, who plays the malevolent Black Phillip. In real life, Charlie proved less than evil — except to actor Ineson, the film’s patriarch. “Charlie basically wanted to sleep, chill out, or attack Ralph,” says Eggers. “Charlie was a good guy, but he didn’t care that I was trying to make a film. Which I respect. He’s a goat.”

The Witch opens in theaters on Feb. 19. 

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