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Editor’s note: While Indiewire has been covering “The Witch” ever since it premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, A24 finally opened the film around the country this weekend, where it performed quite well. Chief film critic Eric Kohn traded thoughts with managing editor Kate Erbland about this sudden popularity, whether or not audiences got what they expected, and what it might say about the state of the horror genre.
ERIC: So “The Witch” is a bonafide hit. Say goodbye to those hordes of thinkpieces about buzzy Sundance titles facing box office oblivion — we hardly knew ye, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” — because the roughly $8.6 million weekend box office gross for “The Witch” harkens back to its popularity in Park City, where it won a best director prize. Robert Eggers’ first feature is an expertly realized psychological thriller in more traditional horror movie clothing. Its popularity suggests that’s an appealing combination for audiences beyond the festival circuit.
While we’ve seen eerie tales of isolated groups haunted by supernatural forces in the woods before, Eggers constructs one of the most commanding atmospheric period pieces in recent memory. The freakier moments certainly pack a visceral punch, but Eggers is just as eager to address the sense of uneasiness associated with this paranoid chapter in American history. To that end, with a small cast restricted to one location, it also has a keen allegorical dimension, not unlike how Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” spoke to anti-Communist paranoia. This is what happens when society believes so heavily in its delusions that it’s destroyed by them. Donald Trump, anyone?
Setting the bigger ideas aside, “The Witch” is also driven by stellar craftsmanship. Less reliant on jump scares than the slow-burn tactic of immersing you in a mounting sense of dread, the movie serves as an antidote to more predictable versions of this drama. Just last week, a shockingly pointless remake of “Cabin Fever” hit theaters, offering one of the more extreme examples of the assumption that horror formula doesn’t require fresh ideas. “The Witch” proves that ever genre deserves to have some vision driving it.
Needless to say, Kate, the hype is strong with this one, and I’m happy to report that it’s for good reasons. But I’ve been beating the drum for it ever since those festival days, and you were in the unique position of watching it much later. Sometimes the altitude can play tricks on our heads. What did you think about “The Witch”?
KATE: Having missed out on the movie during both its Sundance premiere last year and its screenings last fall in Toronto (festival schedules, what a bear), I’ve been wanting to see “The Witch” for over a year. Colleagues and friends, including you, have been banging on about it for months, and once distributor A24 started rolling out its deliciously creepy ad campaign for the film and made the bold choice to release it wide, my anticipation was off the charts. So did it live up to the hype?
It depends on who you ask. Despite its big box office numbers, some audience members seem to be brutally disappointed by “The Witch,” as illuminated by pieces like this one from Medium, and a reported C- CinemaScore. I don’t put too much stock in CinemaScores as they relate to quality, but they’re an interesting barometer of the gap between what people expect to see and what they actually get. (Hell, “Bad Grandpa” got a B.) Audiences were expecting something different, perhaps something more “traditionally” scary, and they didn’t get that.
Instead, they got something better. When I finally sat down to check out “The Witch” a couple of weeks ago, I spent the first 15 or so minutes in a state of anxious dread, jumping at every sound and flinching at what amounted to snappy editing, waiting for something WILD! or CRAZY! to happen. And while that stuff happens later – one of my favorite things about the film is that it doesn’t try to trick its audience at all and plenty of insane things unfold in its second half – that’s not the best part about it at all.
As you said, “The Witch” is marked by stellar craftsmanship, not just in terms of the look and feel of the film, the cut of someone’s dress or the way a roof is thatched, but in the way Eggers and his cast so spectacularly and believably fill out their characters. The scariest thing about the film is its atmosphere and every piece of both technical work and actual performance that feeds into it. It’s not jump scares and things flying at your face, it’s actual dread. What could be more horrifying than that?
ERIC: Well, I can’t even contemplate those CinemaScore ratings without feeling a kick of rage. The Trojan horse element of a movie like this necessitates that some people won’t get what they want. But if some tangible minority appreciated “The Witch” on its own terms, the grumbling graders who wanted the Salem torture porn trials can get their fix elsewhere. I suppose we’ll see in the coming weeks if there’s some kind of extreme drop-off that indicates poor word of mouth, but I’m betting “The Witch” will, like “It Follows” last year, find its footing with serious horror fans.
And here’s that genre’s dirty little secret, as its most devout acolytes can attest: Scare tactics don’t really matter as much as a general sense of unease. I keep coming back to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “I Walked With a Zombie” not because they’re terrifying in any kind of immediate way. It’s the tone. The “Paranormal Activity” franchise exploits the other end of the spectrum. But these much earlier examples speak to a kind of filmmaking mastery in which fear is embedded in the DNA of the material, from the sets to pace to behavior. “The Witch” is in tune with that approach. It’s also just a touch too imitative of Stanley Kubrick, but I’ll take a handful of “The Shining” knock-off moments over simpler retreads.
But to go back to those CinemaScores for a second, if I can contain myself: There’s a reason why “The Witch” wasn’t released on Halloween, and why it didn’t play in the midnight sections at Sundance and Toronto. It’s not the kind of movie that deserves to be ghettoized by its genre. At the same time, the genre itself deserves more respect. So I almost wonder if this movie has the potential to develop a significant audience intrigued by its cross-over appeal. If it’s big enough, the genre as a whole stands to benefit. So I really hope that those initial CinemaScores wind up stranded in the woods with those ill-fated characters in “The Witch.” Horror movies as a whole don’t get the respect they deserve. What say you?
KATE: After I finally saw “The Witch,” I was inundated with questions from friends – “Is there really a witch? What happens to the baby? What’s the deal with that goat?” – and I continually hesitated to answer them, because none of that stuff is actually the point of “The Witch,” though it seems like that’s what so many audiences are expecting these days. Sure, I could have answered those questions, but they wouldn’t have accurately spoken to the real power of the film.
I don’t think the whole genre gets a bad rap, but I think that films like “The Witch” or “It Follows” get dinged by audiences who are expecting run-of-the-mill thrills and chills, a bevy of jump scares and some added gore for a bit of pizazz. Horror films that rely on emotional dread and well-crafted fear aren’t the standard right now, and that’s why films that buck those tropes often find their audience outside the usual horror-heads (or, perhaps more accurately, people who think they’re horror-heads, the kind of movie-goers that Medium article talks about, who are missing out on great films because they don’t fit their narrow idea of what their supposed favorite genre is capable of creating).
I’m often reminded of the time I went to see “The Strangers” in a packed theater on a Friday night with a surprisingly mixed crowd. The film’s marketing, both posters and trailers, centered on a scene in which Liv Tyler’s character stands alone in a darkened kitchen, with the masked face of one of the intruders just poking out in the background. We all knew the scene, we knew it was coming, but when it finally did, when that mask finally poked out, an actual chill ran through the entire crowd. We gasped. Nothing else happened, but the dread that scene inspired stuck with me for days.
ERIC: Interesting that you mention “The Strangers,” which is getting a sequel later this year. That epitomizes the problem faced by this genre. There’s disconnect between the production of great horror and the way industry processes it. While superheroes easily open themselves up for endless duplication, “emotional dread,” as you put it, can’t be so easily replicated. While there have been mumblings of a follow-up to “It Follows,” director David Robert Mitchell is basically too talented to waste time on it. I certainly hope that if “The Witch” remains popular, it doesn’t automatically lead to a sequel. Instead, it should lead to an audience for more smart, original horror movies.
And since I’m an optimist, I figure it’s worth pointing out that Netflix’s decision to pick up the Iranian horror movie “Under the Shadow” out of Sundance this year is a good sign. I called it the first great horror movie of the year because “The Witch” technically surfaced in 2015, but together they send a promising message.
The Netflix deal in particular is a positive sign (even if the exclusive deal for streaming rights messed with its theatrical options). The company with a lot of hidden data about what viewers want has decided that a foreign language movie set in the late eighties about an ominous demonic presence with, yes, allegorical ramifications — this time, surrounding a repressive society — has potential to find an audience. And it’s the opening night movie at the New Directors/New Films series in March, which tends to speak to the state of contemporary cinema from emerging voices. So the future of scary movies looks bright. Or maybe I should say dark and stormy…KATE: Immediate sequels — or, in the case of “The Strangers,” not immediate, but long chattered-about — are rarely something to get excited about, especially when it comes to the horror genre, which often leans on films that literally need to surprise and shock their audiences. It’s funny that last week’s surprise hit, “Deadpool,” instantly kickstarted two conversations about how to replicate its success: With the announcement that a sequel was already in the works and with other studios reportedly scrambling to replicate whatever it was that made a hard-R superhero film work.
As you said above, successes shouldn’t inspire people to simply copy, but to actively embrace the possibility that unique things are able to break through. Horror movies and superhero films are the two genres that could benefit the most from this lesson, so here’s hoping the last couple of weeks at the box office will inspire more of that thinking and fewer copy-and-paste products.
The “Under the Shadow” pickup is great news and a strong sign of things to come, both in terms of the possibility of the genre and the way these films can be distributed to larger audiences. That’s another film that’s a true find, which works because of hard-earned dread and a dedication to crafting a believable world, just like “The Witch” and “It Follows.” If that’s what the horror world is working towards, and let’s hope it is, there’s going to be plenty to scream about in the future.