After the final credits rolled, I rose from my seat, walked out of the movie theater, got in to my friend's car and went back home. We talked about the movie for a while and then decided to call it a night to leave for our respective homes. I sat down on my couch telling myself that I didn't want to go to bed. I was scared.
The Witch left me feeling exhausted, and I say that as a compliment. The movie assaulted all my senses at once by torturing, slowly if I may add, my brain. The crawling speed with which the director (first time writer / director Robert Eggers) chose to tell his story was a stroke of genius in my opinion. He created a claustrophobic atmosphere by building up the tension and rewarding us at times with nothing on screen.
Even though the setting was out in the wilderness, Eggers managed to make me feel claustrophobic. His vision, enhanced by the great cinematography, is proof enough that horror movies can still be part of serious cinema. The dialogue is superb and the acting (especially that of the children) is outstanding. Overall, I thought it was a really well made film. And then I read reviews of people that either hated it or just criticized it for not being at all scary.
That made me think, what passes for horror these days then?
The Witch is set in New England in 1630, a generation before the Salem witch trials, and the story revolves around a small family that has been excommunicated from its plantation due to the father's outspoken objections to what he sees as the community’s lenient religious principles. The father welcomes, at his family's reluctance, the chance to leave the plantation and practice his strict adherence to the Lord on his own, moving his family to a remote location near the dreaded woods.
This family is there by itself. The fear of the unknown and even worse, the fear of losing faith is what is explored in this film and the horror of the titular witch is vaguely explored on purpose to leave the focus entirely on the family. Exposing the fear that the characters feel rather than the fear that the "threat" can cause, is a difficult task to accomplish.
The movie shows us what it meant to have fear back in the day: fear of God, fear of starving because the crop went bad, fear of not being a good son or daughter and the characters sold that feeling to perfection.
Nowadays, our greatest fears are based on not accomplishing our long or short term goals, fear of failure or the constant feeling that we will leave this world without making our own mark. Simply put, our fear is selfish, as is our modern view of what we consider good entertainment. In this era of social media and instant gratification, our thirst for entertainment (in this case horror films) requires us to be satiated immediately so we can jump towards the next best thing.
This is not a new thing, though; it happened when the The Blair Witch Project first screened back in 1999. Some people considered it a good horror movie but most people were disappointed because there was no witch or gore in it. Well, the studio listened to those complaints and decided to give the fans everything they wanted to see in the first installment by releasing Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 a year later. The movie had everything they hoped for: blood, a witch, violence, more blood, a plot filled with mystery and... it was universally reviled.
So, the question remains, what is a good horror movie?
Horror movies have always been relevant and horror is one of the best genres in cinema because it is aimed directly at our most basic of emotions but if people are going to criticize a movie like The Witch because it is not scary enough, it means that they are fans of a sub genre of horror and not horror as a whole.
Here's a paragraph from the movie review by Collider news editor Adam Chitwood:
While the horror genre has never really lost its prevalence over the years, it feels like a lot of “scary” movies these days are simply going through the motions, offering up the cinematic equivalent of junk food—it may taste good in the moment, but it’s not necessarily fulfilling or all that memorable.
That is absolutely true. We are fortunate that today we have so many options to choose from so we can satisfy our need for a good scare, but we need to understand the difference between terror and horror first. Terror is usually the feeling of dread and anticipation before the experience, basically being shocked or scared, and horror would be that feeling that comes after the experience, like that anxious feeling of emptiness in your stomach.
The Witch accomplished both with me.
Maybe The Witch is not for everyone but it is a good movie nonetheless and what makes this movie memorable is not what we saw on the screen but what it did after it ended. The Witch makes it clear that horror fans are generally divided in groups and opened the debate of what horror means nowadays.
Well, there you have it. Thank you for your time and I hope you enjoyed the read.