2016 already has its runaway success Spring horror movie! Or, so it seems… I’ve been anticipating the release of The Witch since the first reviews started coming out of Sundance 2015, just about an entire year ago. For its budget, marketing, and release scale, it seems to be doing very well so far, one weekend into its wide theatrical window. How general audiences are responding is another story though, and I’ll get into that soon.
If you pay attention to the buzz, you may hear people describe The Witch as “a slow burn”, “subtle”, “unsettling”, and “not for everyone”. I would strongly urge you – horror fan or not – to heed all these descriptions rigorously, especially the last one. Even among the horror crowd, this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s a fact that’s oddly getting lost among the effusive praise critics have been showering upon this film for the past year. You can read any number of reviews that will tell you what The Witch “is”, that will describe the plot, the setting, and the characters and give a sense of the overall tone. My review, I’m hoping, will help you establish the proper expectations, because in a movie like this expectations are everything.
Some films use a slow, withholding pace to build tension and then release it with cathartic bombast. Others use it to sneakily weave feelings of dread and paranoia into the audience’s psyche. The Witch is firmly of the latter camp, and it’s really quite difficult to overstate just how slow this particular burn is. An adequate experience level with modern horror films has trained us to expect big payoffs after long periods of moody, atmospheric suspense building, and The Witch almost gleefully denies you most of those payoffs. It’s not that nothing dramatic or horrifying happens (there are a number of truly haunting images), and it’s not one of those bait-and-switch situations where the only “monster” is human nature (this is smartly established early on). It’s just that The Witch is an almost unparalleled exercise in restraint, at least by modern standards.
The atmosphere of The Witch is dense. You can almost taste the fog on your nose. 1630’s New England is seemingly in a perpetual state of encroaching dusk, or if not dusk, the blackest of nights, lit only by woefully insufficient candlelight. The much ballyhoo’ed authentic old English dialogue forces you to actively engage and listen intently, and combined with the cinematography puts you on edge more than you might realize, until a totally innocuous thump or creak makes you jump in your seat. This cinematic magic trick is The Witch’s greatest strength, provided you’re of the proper mindset and inclination to simply let it wash over you and suck you into its own Earthly Hell.
BUT… it would appear that general audiences aren’t so willing to go along on this ride. I noted that in the theater in which I saw the movie, the audience was fairly distracting. Not excessively so, but there was a preponderance of giggling during the MANY uncomfortable silences throughout the film, along with inappropriate laughter during scenes that weren’t comedic in any way. One couple brought a toddler into the (R-rated, independent, slow burn Satanic horror) movie, who naturally became bored and started babbling. I saw several phones light up. Sadly none of these things are uncommon in movie theaters, but it all seemed particularly obtrusive here. And once I got on Twitter afterwards I was startled to see a number of people report the same kinds of experiences with The Witch in general release. One review even suggested waiting for it to hit home video, just because of this aspect.
And that’s the whole reason I’m throwing my hat into this ring. The Witch is not for everyone. It might not even be for you, person reading the Halloween blog. When the ending credits came up (prompting even more giggling from the audience), I wasn’t even sure it was for ME. I didn’t know what to think at all, in fact. I knew that I had seen something singular and unique, but what?
All I can say now is, I’m still thinking about it. Still remembering certain scenes, still working through the themes they were invoking, still trying to reconcile it. I can see, with time, this settling in as kind of a Colonial era The Shining (I’m not the first person to make that comparison, to be sure) – a challenge to the idea of categorization, seemingly inaccessible at first, but hiding untold layers that reveal themselves with thought and subsequent viewings. I think. I’m still not entirely sure.
If you do decide to take the plunge and see The Witch, don’t expect a traditional horror experience. It just won’t satisfy in that way. And you may want to wait until you can see it free of distraction. With the lights, and your phone, off.