So here I am, almost two months into 2016, and I finally saw a movie in theatres for the first time this year, and of course it was a movie that technically came out last year, apparently, though it didn’t get a wide release until now. I have a feeling this post is going to get pretty far off topic, so before it does, I’ll give you what I’m sure you came here for: The Witch is a potent brew, and one that I recommend drinking down.
We saw it in a basically empty theatre with only two other people in the whole place. They were quiet and respectful throughout the movie, but as the credits rolled, they certainly looked perplexed. Then, on the way out, we were stopped by a handful of (young) theatre employees who said that they had tried watching The Witch and gotten maybe an hour into it, but it was boring and they kept waiting for something to happen.
Both of these reactions baffle me, honestly, because, like the movie or not, I found The Witch to be pretty straightforward, really, and surprisingly fast (if deliberately) paced. Maybe some of the disconnect comes from the fully twenty minutes of trailers that preceded the movie, which demonstrated with utter facility that the people responsible for programming such things had no idea who the target audience for a film like this is.
Prior to walking into the theatre, I shared a link to this post on Facebook, where I said that I hadn’t seen anyone reacting that way to those movies, which, at the time, was true. Since then, over on Twitter, Bret Easton Ellis, speaking in the voice of a thousand fratboys, chimed in, “Indie Arthouse Horror is becoming my least favorite new genre: It Follows, Goodnight Mommy, The Babadook, The Witch.”
Oddly enough, I feel like both the author of the original post and Ellis are doing The Witch a disservice by lumping it in with films like It Follows and The Babadook, a comparison that is apt only insofar as they are all more or less successful independent horror features released in the last few years with modest budgets and deliberate pacing. I would instead place The Witch in its rightful position in the spectrum of folk horror films, where it joins the likes of Witchfinder General, The Witches, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man, and more recently Sauna, Black Death, Kill List, and A Field in England. That The Witch adds to that very respectable pantheon the lens of early American Puritanism also places it in the spectrum of Puritan witch panic narratives, and means that it’s probably about as close to a Daniel Mills story as we’re ever likely to get on film, because we inhabit a cold and uncaring universe.
While walking out of the theatre, we also had a discussion about how we need a more robust vocabulary for talking about whether or not things are scary. It’s a subject that I’ll get into some in my forthcoming piece for Nightmare Magazine‘s The H Word column, and one that came up last year surrounding Crimson Peak, a movie that I did see plenty of people claim wasn’t horror, sometimes its critics and sometimes its supporters. For what it’s worth, if pressed, I would call the emotion that The Witch prompts “dread” instead of “fear,” while I would call even the most intense of my own stories “creepy” instead of “scary.”
While I hadn’t seen many people disparaging The Witch prior to seeing it–and certainly none claiming that it wasn’t horror–what I had seen were plenty of the equal and opposite reaction, people saying that movies like The Witch and It Follows are the only legitimate horror films that have been released in the past however-long. Again, I find both of those positions equally wrongheaded.
Personally, I liked The Witch, thought The Babadook was pretty good, was disappointed in It Follows, and dug The Conjuring. But to draw arbitrary lines in the sand and say that one isn’t horror while another is seems fruitless and, ultimately, reductive to the genre, no matter which side of the line you’re on. I don’t care for Cabin Fever, but I would never argue that it isn’t horror.
Over on his Twitter, The Conjuring director James Wan has been very vocal in his support for The Witch. Ultimately, trying to stack the one up against the other seems like a pretty pointless endeavor. Both are very successful movies, and both are very emphatically horror, and hell, both even involve witches, but they’re operating in two completely different modes. And that’s fine. Variety is, after all, the spice of life, and who doesn’t want to live deliciously? We don’t have to like everything that comes out in order to embrace the diversity of horror that’s available to us. As J.T. Glover put it perfectly in response to my Facebook post, “Many shades of black are better than one.”