Published on February 24th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant1
The Witch (And a Defense of New Horror)
What was meant as a review of The Witch turns into a look at what horror and suspense mean in a time of rampant anti-intellectualism.
Judging by some of the negative opinions online about the new horror film The Witch, I think the movie couldn’t have come at a better time for spurring a conversation about the genre. While it has been critically lauded, not everyone was cheering for the movie from first time feature director Robert Eggers. One review that I stumbled across, from Amy Nicholson of MTV, seemed to sum up the distaste of some viewers. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find a superficial review from a source like MTV, whose mandate seems to include dumbing us down until we see fit to water our crops with Gatorade.
The Witch takes place in the 1600s in New England, where a family has been exiled from their home because the father’s pride won’t let him compromise his religious views in the pious community. They leave on a rickety cart with everything they can pile and strap on, eventually finding the perfect little clearing in front of a patch of woods. But once they’re settled, they start to realize that their idyllic little life may be infected by black magic.
Nicholson’s review, which reads more like a diary entry from a shallow teenager, laments that there’s not enough witch and too few jumps scares. Cue Edgar Allen Poe to start spinning in his grave. If I could, I’d tell Nicholson that less is usually more and that jump scares are often a cheap substitute for real dread. They have their use sometimes, but they’re also overused by pandering filmmakers that don’t know how to build suspense. (I’d love to read her review of a movie like Repulsion. “OMG! Hashtag soooo boring!”).
It’s not that I need all horror movies to be ART FILLUMS — far from it. I grew up in the VHS era, on some of the greatest blood and gore-splattered fun you can possibly find. I love those movies. My ire here is a response to the campaign of anti-intellectualism that is specifically calling out The Witch because it dares to assume you might not be an idiot. It’s a witch-hunt, pun intended.
Is The Witch scary? Well, I suppose that depends on what you find scary. It’s subjective. But I’d submit that The Witch is better than scary. It’s unsettling. Atmospheric. Hypnotic. Filled with dread and doom. It’s a fear that settles on your shoulder like a raven, perching there, whispering in your ear, long after you’ve left the theatre. In other words, it’s amazingly well crafted and full of suspense.
Before I stop beating this dead horse (or Satanic goat, as it were), let’s recall Hitchcock’s thoughts on suspense versus surprise. If a bomb under the table goes off, one that we didn’t even know was there, the audience gets a quick surprise. But if we know the bomb is there, and the characters around the table keep having their trivial conversation because they don’t see it, while the clock keeps ticking towards an imminent explosion — the audience gets protracted suspense. Jump scares are a quick surprise. The Witch is all suspense.
Take The Witch on The Maury Show for a DNA test and you’ll discover some Kubrick in its family tree. Dread is created with facial expressions, slow camera push-ins, and earsplitting choruses of disembodied voices, like in 2001. And without giving away the plot, it has some elements of The Shining. There are echoes of movies like The Thing, when paranoia takes over and the family members accuse each other of making a pact with evil.
Much of the depth of the film comes from subtext as characters are revealed to be flawed human beings. In the beginning, we see the father being ejected from the community, and we expect that it means that he is somehow better than his accusers, that they just don’t get his angle and it will be their downfall. However, it’s slowly revealed that he’s also making up his life plan as he goes along. He’s just as likely to be a liar and a hypocrite as he carefully builds up the sin of pride. He keeps chopping wood, adding to a growing woodpile, a metaphor for his pride. He needs to be careful that this woodpile doesn’t grow so large that it comes toppling down on his head.
This, as well as the other interactions and characters, all serve to have you just as interested in their puritan life and family dynamics — and when you care about what’s happening to them, it makes the horror all the more, well, horrifying. Nicholson gets one thing right in her review — that living in colonial times was scary enough, especially when your family thinks you might be a witch. The movie works well as a disquieting drama before you even add the supernatural elements, which is often what separates a great horror picture from a good or bad one.
The Witch may not be for you, and that’s totally okay. But there’s a difference between a movie not speaking to you and it being a bad movie. To call it “a boring piece of shit,” as many have been, says more about those people than it does about the film. Sadly, it’s a lot of horror fans being so vocal. If your argument is that it’s a bad movie because they speak in olde English, they take the time to build story and character, and there aren’t enough cats leaping from staircases, you’re showing your ignorance. Not only to movies in general, but to the origins of horror — like Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, or Bram Stoker. Dismissing The Witch for the wrong reasons enforces the stereotypes of horror fans as mouth-breathing perverts who are only in it to watch boobs get splattered with gore. Some of us believe in the legitimacy of horror as an artistic genre, and your shitty attitude keeps a knife at its neck.
Is The Witch doing something new? Hell, no. But it’s doing something really well. And it’s firmly cast as a player in the rise of the new independent horror films, more artfully made but popular fare like The Babadook or It Follows. Each of these three films are also very different, and I enjoyed them to different degrees, but that’s the great thing about the genre — there are plenty of ideas, tones, and executions to go around. Hating The Witch because it didn’t fit into the little box you wanted it to is stifling the growth of horror, in an era that film history will some day look back on as groundbreaking for the genre.