If you go to The Witch hoping for blood and guts, you’re going to be disappointed… But you will see a great horror film.
Frank Anderson is the head film writer at The Renaissance Fan.
The lowest scores currently displayed on CinemaScore.com are the C minuses held by Hail, Caesar! and The Witch. A CinemaScore, determined by polls of audiences conducted on a film’s opening weekend, is rarely this low. In the case of Hail Caesar!, the movie just isn’t for everyone, people who don’t have an interest in classic Hollywood or the Coen Brother’s specific brand of winking cynicism aren’t likely to enjoy what the film has to offer. But with Robert Eggers’ The Witch, the problem seems to be that the film has been defined and marketed as a horror movie and it’s not scary. At least not in the way that most horror movies are scary.
The Witch is not what fans have come to expect from the horror genre, meaning it is not a delivery system for splatter and jump scares. While those elements do factor in at key moments, the film is not reliant on those tools to deliver scares. So, is it a horror film? Yes. But the horror is not of the visceral kind, it comes in the form of a palpable sense of dread, and in the way a family turns on one another when faced with a threat from outside. The viewer is not horrified by what they are seeing but by what they are feeling, dread.The Witch is not what fans have come to expect from the horror genre, meaning it is not a delivery system for splatter and jump scares. While those elements do factor in at key moments, the film is not reliant on those tools to deliver scares. So, is it a horror film? Yes. But the horror is not of the visceral kind, it comes in the form of a palpable sense of dread, and in the way a family turns on one another when faced with a threat from outside. The viewer is not horrified by what they are seeing but by what they are feeling, dread.
The Witch is far from the first horror film to rely on a sense of dread rather than visceral shocks. Take, for example, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) a film widely acknowledged as a classic of the horror genre without any “scares” to speak of. Director Roman Polanski creates horror by, as The Witch does, allowing the audience to know a little more than heroine Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) knows, the fate toward which she is unwittingly moving and forcing a feeling of dread that hangs over the entire film. The tension comes from knowing that there is a force operating against the lead character but not knowing the extent of that force’s power.
Take, for instance, this scene in which Rosemary enters a phone booth to make a frantic call to the friendly Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin), while she tries to make her escape from her, then perceived, enemies.
There’s nothing inherently threatening about the man in the suit who enters the frame, but because we don’t know who is or isn’t working against Rosemary’s interests, and we know that Rosemary doesn’t know whether or not anybody is working against her at all, his presence is frightening. Note that Polanski does not create a “scare” by having the man pop into the frame accompanied by a booming musical cue to provide a shock to the senses. Again, it’s about a sustained feeling of paranoia and dread, and it is “horrific” if not necessarily “scary”.
Eggers has been opening in acknowledging Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) as major influence on The Witch. Like The Witch, The Shining focuses on the disintegration of a family faced with an antagonistic supernatural power, which they are not immediately able to recognize. While there are a number of creepy images in The Shining, blood pouring from the elevator, the decaying woman, and the Grady twins (Lisa and Louise Burns):
But these images, for the most part, are more unsettling than they are frightening, they are not likely to cause the viewer to look away in “horror”. Kubrick derives horror from Jack Torrance’s (Jack Nicholson) mental deterioration, and from the audience’s fear of what they can’t quite comprehend. Needless to say, Kubrick is highly successful, The Shining is a consensus all-time great and it’s never referred to as anything besides a horror film.
While jump scares and gross-outs are by no means the mark of a bad film, and require skilled filmmaking to be done effectively, they are cheap tricks when it comes to the horror director’s toolbox. It’s exciting when talented filmmaker brings all of his or her skills to bear on creating a mood and atmosphere that will keep an audience scared without “scaring” them. While audiences may be saying “it’s not really a horror movie” about The Witch now, Eggers’ film will be referred to as a classic of the genre in the future. No matter how “scary” it is.