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Robert Eggers satisfies hex drive with ‘The Witch’

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Writer-director Robert Eggers is promoting his spooky new movie, “The Witch,” which is set in a time when people believed witches were real. (Arel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Horror films suffer a bad rap, but occasionally something exceptional, like Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” reinvigorates the genre.

Eggers began from a place of primal fear: “Since I was a kid, and up through making this film, I have had weird archetypal witch dreams that are really scary. And I wanted to understand what that was all about,” he said on recent visit to The City to promote the movie, which opens Friday.

Because witches today are plastic Halloween decorations with no meaning, Eggers decided to transport audiences back to the 17th century, when witches were believed to be real, for his movie.

In “The Witch,” Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie play the heads of a Puritan family banished by the church and starting a new farm near a spooky woods.

Strange things begin to happen, and eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is caught in the middle.

Already having directed short films based on Edgar Allan Poe and Grimm Brothers stories, Eggers researched the language of the time for his feature-length debut.

His father is a Shakespeare professor, so he had a strong start. But his research also extended to pamphlets of the day, which are what inspired the movie’s weird double-V logo, “The VVitch.”

“Some people are like, ‘va-va-itch?’ But it’s a printing press thing,” Eggers explains. “In the period, if you ran out of W’s, you could just use two V’s. I saw a Jacobean witch pamphlet that had it, and I thought it looked great.”

From these pamphlets and other published works, Eggers jotted down phrases and sentences and organized them for his story. He calls the first drafts of his screenplay “monstrous cannibalistic collages of people’s words.”

Fortunately, he turned it into something more personal, and still received a thumbs up from historians.

For the shoot, Eggers insisted on authenticity, from hand-stitched costumes to specialized carpentry. “There was one guy who could do incredible jointery with a chainsaw. It was amazing!”

Additionally, Eggers was responsible for the children and animals in his cast. He says that the kids, a rabbit, a raven and a horse were all wonderful to work with. But he admits he had trouble with “Charlie,” the goat who plays the movie’s foreboding “Black Phillip.”

“The goat could not have been worse,” Eggers says. “Charlie didn’t want to be there. He wanted to chill out and sleep, or attack Ralph. I wouldn’t say that I’ll never work with goats again, but not Charlie. A different goat next time.”

The Witch
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw
Written and directed by: Robert Eggers
Rated R
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes