Note: There are some spoilers below.
Writer-director Robert Eggers' The Witch is for all intents and purposes a critical and commercial success, grossing $8.6 million in its opening weekend and netting a “Fresh” rating of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet those impressive numbers, such welcome indicators for a small film, come with the following caveat: a lot of people out there absolutely hated this movie.
Look no further than the film's C- CinemaScore and a not-insignificant number of gripes on Twitter and elsewhere, with many fans labeling The Witch with that worst of pejoratives for a horror film: “not scary.” Frankly, I'm beginning to wonder if we watched the same movie.
As I noted in my initial reaction last week, The Witch is not about shocks or gore or cheap jump scares (though it has the first two of those three things in spades) but about the unshakable feeling of dread it stirs up in your gut. I never “jumped out of my seat” or “white-knuckled my armrests” or “peeked through my fingers,” but I did come out of the experience haunted by writer-director Robert Eggers' profoundly disturbing vision. I cannot shake from my brain, for instance, the final image of Thomasin's (Anya Taylor-Joy) ecstatic expression in close up as she rises into the air above a blazing fire, in full embrace of her literally hellish new powers.
So why all the hate? I think the problem here lies with two basic things: expectations and conditioning. The Witch is not as immediate a film as Insidious or The Conjuring, and it's no gore-fest like Saw or Hostel, but people were clearly expecting it to embody those qualities after the trailer promised “one of the most genuinely unnerving horror films in recent memory,” something “terrifying,” something “soul-shaking” even.
To me, The Witch was all of those things, but I'm willing to concede that perhaps those words don't mean the same thing to me as they do to many others. The film got under my skin profoundly, but it did not have the moment-to-moment, audience-pleasing shocks that moviegoers have become accustomed to thanks to movies like Sinister and The Purge and Paranormal Activity and every other Blumhouse and Platinum Dunes title in the canon.
We've witnessed this kind of reaction to other recent titles, with Jennifer Kent's The Babadook and David Robert Mitchell's It Follows suffering a similar audience backlash, and what these three films have in common is their so-called “left-of-center” sensibilities. They are all interested in delivering more than just your standard shocks. They are all interested in telling stories about people we actually care about. They are all interested in illuminating something about the human condition. And yes, they are all interested in scaring us — just not in the shallow, disposable way so many of us have come to expect. The fact that these foundational qualities are now somehow considered “left of center” is almost as bleak as the The Witch itself.
I despair every time a horror film that I love is greeted in this way, because I really want to believe that every time I hear horror fans complain about Hollywood's endless obsession with predictable remakes, reboots and sequels that they actually mean it. And then a film like The Witch, which I honestly think will go down in history as one of the greatest horror films of its era, comes out, and people complain that it's not exactly what they were expecting. Go figure.
I wonder what the same people who are slamming The Witch would have to say about no less a classic than Rosemary's Baby, a film that features almost no blood or traditional action beats but which is widely considered one of the greatest horror films of all time. And I wonder what they would have to say about The Shining, which is about as slow-burn as horror movies come. Would they similarly bash those films if they were to come out today?
As Brad Miska (a.k.a. Mr. Disgusting) over at Bloody Disgusting has pointed out, there is a silver lining here. The Witch's box-office success this weekend — not to mention the sleeper success of It Follows last spring — bodes well for lovers of less-traditional horror fare because it means that distributors will be more willing to take a chance on those weird, unconventional fright films they might otherwise have never granted with a theatrical release. For that, we should all celebrate the marketing team over at A24, which sold audiences on a movie they apparently didn't even want but will someday, I suspect, come to appreciate.