Each year, a movie is released that has everybody claiming the “new world” of horror is upon us. Finally, after years of rip-offs, reboots and unnecessary sequels, our faith is rewarded as something new, fresh and, crucially, scary is gifted to us long-suffering fans of the genre. Last year, it was the very good It Follows, the year before that the overrated The Babadook and now, in 2016, we have The Witch.
Robert Eggers’ debut has already proven divisive among horror fans (critics have, largely, heralded it as a masterpiece). Certain factions, like those who only want Saw 50 and nothing more, argue the flick isn’t ‘real’ horror, whatever that means. Others find it too difficult to follow thanks to the traditional Olde English dialogue. And a lot of people just plain don’t get it–in particular, the casual, multiplex crowd.
Obviously, everyone is entitled to like and dislike whichever films they wish. And movies, especially horror movies, are inherently personal experiences. The backlash against The Witch isn’t necessarily something we need to rush to write think-pieces about (though we have already done so). Rather, it proves just how special this movie really is. Arguably the all-time greatest films, those with the most staying power, are those that prove most divisive.
In a world where we have two, rubbish, jump scare and CGI laden studio horror movies out within a couple months of each other (The Forest and The Other Side of the Door) and making seriously big bucks at the box office, Eggers’ oddity is a welcome respite. It’s not just different, it’s unlike anything you have ever seen before.
The Witch focuses instead on building a creepy, unnerving atmosphere, the tension building and building and building until a final act reveal that isn’t so much shocking as it is disconcerting. We know from early on that there’s a witch–we see her, greasing her broom with the blood of a recently-slaughtered baby–so the tension comes not from whether she will strike but when she will strike.
This is something that studio horror gets wrong on an annoyingly regular basis. Or, more accurately, doesn’t trust us to understand. The kind of movies that typically frighten multiplex crowds dispel their scares quickly, at a regular pace, throughout their zippy, 90-minute run-times. The Witch gives us one shock reveal (the broom-greasing) early on and then asks us to get comfortable for the next 80-odd minutes of weirdness.
There are no jump scares, there is no humour to punctuate the gloomy atmosphere, and the dialogue is heavy with religious paranoia and old-age skepticism. Eggers isn’t going for easy scares here. Rather, he wants to completely unnerve us, to lead us to question everything we’re seeing so that nothing and nobody can be fully trusted.
The idea of replicating his characters’ feelings is a clever one, because it negates any need for exposition, which is partly why The Witch has come under such scrutiny: Everyone is rushing to explain it all away. Eggers, who wrote the script himself, proves, whether intentionally or otherwise, that dumbing down is not always necessary–provide the frights and people will respond. And responding with confusion is better than not responding at all.
Likewise, a massive budget isn’t required either. The Witch‘s $3.5 million dollar budget is pithy compared to that of The Forest and The Other Side Of The Door. And yet, where those films never feel like anything other than massive, expensive productions, The Witch is so authentic, it almost seems like a documentary at times. The attention is to real-world detail, instead of CGI phantoms. It’s scary because we believe in it.
Eggers clearly believes in his idea wholeheartedly, too, hence why he shows us his monster early on. And, for much of the flick he lets his vision do the talking. Sound design is of huge importance here, particularly when it comes to selling us on the movie’s loopiest moment, while Mark Kovren’s unsettling score perfectly complements Jarin Blaschke’s stark, bleak cinematography.
This isn’t just a world where the idea of a baby-smushing witch seems possible, it’s a world where evil in general is part of the landscape, where prayers are uttered almost constantly, in hushed, hurried tones, to keep the bad stuff at bay. Eggers drives this point home by committing to his idea fully by refusing to give us a happy ending (or, indeed, any kind of resolution).
Birth Movies Death noted that The Witch works “so spectacularly as art film and horror film”. It’s perhaps this distinction that’s seen the film plagued with accusations of ‘over-hype’, a nonsense idea generally perpetuated by people too stupid to make up their own minds. It Follows fell victim to a similar fate, while denouncers of The Babadook are dismissed for being hype believers (or deniers, in this case).
Good movies will find their audiences, regardless of so-called hype. The Witch is not a victim of over-selling. If anything, it’s been under-sold, it is more than a horror movie. The Witch is completely visually immersive, loaded with arresting imagery and a creeping sense of dread that is expertly built alongside its authentic period setting. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s very, very scary.
Considering it has absolutely no recognisable ties to other horror properties (one could argue it’s folklore horror, much like The Wicker Man), its far-reaching popularity thus far is even more astonishing. Think back to Adam Green’s infamous Hatchet rejection letter, which later became the tagline for that same film; it’s not a remake. It’s not a sequel. And it’s not based on a Japanese one.
The Witch is exactly that; a new, fresh, unique horror movie that is scary, beautiful, intelligent and thought-provoking in equal measure. Ignore (or believe) the hype and go see it for yourself. Love it or hate it, you certainly won’t be indifferent.