I feel compelled to come to the defense of The Witch, aided by secular-progressive free thinking, and my unflinching love for the film.
Due to the recent news of director Robert Eggers’ next project (The Lighthouse, black and white, 35MM film stock), debate seems to have surfaced yet again on my Facebook newsfeed regarding the merits, or lack thereof, of his debut 2016 feature The Witch. It’s very discouraging to see the best reasons haters could come up with for why they don’t like it is because it’s “boring” and “nothing happens”. That isn’t exactly the most constructive way to spark film debate.
CRITICISM #1: MISLEADING MARKETING
I would first like to address the belief that the reason for the polarization of the film is due to it being marketed incorrectly. Some say the trailer led people to expect a certain kind of horror movie, and it didn’t turn out to be that kind of horror movie. While I agree there are few things more frustrating than movie expectations that aren’t met, I don’t agree with people who question the sincerity and honesty of the trailer.
I believe it shows you exactly what the movie is, and captures the mood perfectly: the black goat, gloomy skies, dense woods, rotten crops, candle-lit rooms and faces, angry Puritans, terrified teenagers, and stolen babies. Add to that the ambient choral soundscape and sharp violin stabs and stings. It promised atmosphere, isolation, doom, dread, folk legends, and haunting silence. How that trailer led people to expect anything else is beyond my comprehension.
My own small criticism of the trailer involves the stolen baby scene. If that wasn’t in the trailer, it would have been an effective and unexpected shock. It’s basically the centerpiece of the entire movie. The catalyst for the conflict and suspicion that surrounds Thomasin. Yet it’s also a good fright scene on its own, therefore it could be taken out of context while remaining scary. It’s a difficult call to make. But I think maybe they could’ve worked around it somehow when the trailer was assembled. I wish I wasn’t expecting that scene. The surprise would’ve taken the tension to a higher level.
I have seen two posters for the movie, and I will admit one of them is misleading. Well, not misleading as much as put in an incorrect context. The black poster with the goat is unique and works well.
But there is another poster that features the curvy outlines of a nude female walking into the woods. Is the female Thomasin, or the witch in her youthful disguise? And, it could be because I’m a male, but I get the feeling that the image is a bit too sexualized for the film. There is nudity, but it isn’t erotic nudity, and the poster seems too exploitative for me.
CRITICISM #2: HARDLY HORROR
As an open-minded horror audience, I believe we need to remember that just because a movie has supernatural elements doesn’t mean it is inherently a horror movie. It’s funny how The Exorcist is considered horror, yet it really isn’t a horror movie. It’s a melodrama with a supernatural subject. A theological meditation on evil, how it can corrupt the innocent, and to what lengths it will go to do so.
In an alternate reality, I can imagine The Witch having an impact similar to the kind The Exorcist had. The Witch is a skin-creeper. It digs deep into the heart and lungs and slowly turns the air you breathe as black and rotten as the crops on the farm. The deliberate pace is meant to instill tension and fear. So, maybe it is a horror movie after all.
Yet it really isn’t. Certainly not like any other horror film I’ve ever seen. Knocking this idea back-and-forth demonstrates how efforts to categorize it do the movie and many others like it (Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession) extreme injustice.
But we DO need a process to label and catalogue movies. It’s a way to understand what a movie might be like and how to keep them all straight. Monster movies, slasher movies, haunted house movies, and so on. And trouble arises when we don’t get what we were expecting, or worse yet, encounter a movie that has no category. As I said earlier, it’s a logical back-and-forth argument, and it may not have an answer.
However, one thing we can confidently conclude is that The Witch may suffer from being too different for its own good. Maybe too GOOD for its own good.
CRITICISM #3: WHAT DID I JUST WATCH?
There is style, noise, and dramatic bombast in The Exorcist that The Witch brazenly and confidently lacks. The Exorcist looks like a movie. It has style and sees itself through a director’s eye. However, just like the trailer says, The Witch looks like something we shouldn’t be seeing. Like we are peeking into something that doesn’t know we’re looking.
That could possibly be another thing that alienated a lot of people. Robert Eggers had a precise and informed vision of what he wanted the film to look and feel like, and he was able to transfer it perfectly from his imagination onto the screen.
To conclude this point, I’ll say that in my opinion The Witch wasn’t mis-marketed, with the exception of the poster. The Witch is simply the kind of movie some people weren’t willing to peek into the woods and watch.
The final point I want to touch on is the question of whether or not there really was a witch, or if it was all a hallucination. Many have claimed the events in the film came from the spastic imaginations of people who literally followed the Bible word-for-word.
In an interview, the director brought up the muscle spasms, fevers, and hallucinations known to be the side effects of ergot, which is a disease of rot that sometimes develops in rye and related crops. The infection (ergotism) is commonly known as “Saint Anthony’s Fire” due to the effect it had on a particular order of monks. It has been suggested in the past that much of the witch paranoia and witch-hunting that took place in Salem may have been caused by ergotism.
I don’t buy this interpretation of the movie, though. I think it’s too visually direct to be a dream or hallucination. The ghoulish being seen in the movie is a witch. The havoc she wreaks upon the family is really happening. Period.
Something else to consider, which I picked up on from YouTube videos (I know, grand research), is that the title is always accompanied by the subtitle “A New England Folktale”. The reason we should pay attention to this is because it can be considered part of the title. No other fonts on the posters or trailers match it. Therefore, it is possible that the movie isn’t a hallucination or dream, but an actual folktale of some kind, which would end with a kind of “so don’t go in the woods, or Thomasin the Witch will get you!”
Thought, discussion, and appreciation for the creativity and dedication to detail that went into this masterpiece are encouraged. Personally, I think A LOT happens in it.
Jeffrey Runokivi wrote:
I agree with you on this. The Witch is a brilliant film, but not at all what most “horror” fans want. Its analogous to what Lovecraft used to tout (while not being Lovecraftian at all) and that is Atmosphere over Action. It starts with a small but significant event and then we see this family slowly turn on one another. I am a fan of films by Bergman and Dryer and it is a lot like those kinds of films…hard to categorize but brilliant at what they do. Its one of my favorite films of recent times. It is just a shame that most people do not see the charm of this thing. Everything about it is beautiful and even well researched. I think that the closest category we could put it in is something like Folk Horror with movies are are not exactly like it, but resemble it in theme.
I really appreciate your comments. Thank you for taking the time to weigh in on the topic. I took a witch-hunting class in college, and part of what makes The Witch so enthralling is the historical accuracy. Here is a link to a page I think you will find very entertaining and educational. It’s written by the professor of the class I took. Highly recommended!