The Witch is a small, divisive horror film involving Colonial witchcraft and possessed farm animals that debuted at Sundance last January 2015. Finally, after a year of Internet hype, it’s hitting theaters with endorsements that it's scary enough to send you to hell. Literally.
After releasing two fab trailers in the new calendar year, The Witch also recently received an endorsement from the Satanic Temple, which called it “a transformative Satanic experience.” In a week-long lead up to the film’s wide release today, the Satanic Temple co-hosted screenings with the film’s distributor in four cities: New York, Los Angeles, Austin and Detroit (the Austin screening included a public ritual, FYI; let’s keep an eye on how this will raise the “Keep Austin Weird” bar).
If this gives you pause—thinking you’ll be transformed into a devil worshipper—don’t let it. If you swipe your credit card and take your seat you are not endorsing Satan, nor are you signing your soul away into his book. But also, if the hype makes you think you’ll be sitting down to watch something so unrelentingly terrifying that anything less will be unsatisfying—don’t let it. The Witch is a haunting film, carefully stirred, but it doesn’t boil over with depravity.
The Witch is set in an early U.S. colonial settlement. A family is cast out to fend for themselves because the patriarch (a booming-voiced Ralph Ineson) has begun to preach things that are too pure for the Puritans. Too prideful to fall in line, the father takes his wife and children off on their own. On their solitary settlement, the crops fail, a baby vanishes into thin air, and their young twins say that their goat (gloriously named, Black Phillip) speaks to them of a witch who lives in the woods. Various spooky things happen, but to detail would be to spoil, so if thou wouldst like a blow by blow detail of the horrors, thou wouldst not receive it here (there is your hint that proper-to-the-time Olde English is used in The Witch, but don’t let that be a deterrent—it’s not too hard to decipher, for God is “good,” devils, spirits, and witches are “bad,” and there are no words needed to describe the pull of bosoms).
The Witch is superbly crafted. Like a campfire spotted far into the distance it is enticing, welcoming, and the approach to get to it is full of unease and mystery. Cinematically, it is harder to maintain dread than it is to make you jump or sick to your stomach. In this way, Robert Eggers’ film is an undeniably great horror film. But it is not “scary as hell.” More often than not, I’d argue that horror films are probably better for not being so. If horror movie hype has taught us anything it’s that audiences are always let down, and backlashes are instantaneous. So before The Witch hype boils over, let’s calm the potion, because this film deserves our close attention, not our eventual disdain.
How is horror movie hype different than other hype? It invites a puffed out chest endurance test. Everyone has different thresholds of terror, and hype announces a particular endurance test. If an audience buys into that, and sits down prepared to be scared but isn’t, it’s easy to denounce the film as a failure, even if the film itself isn’t.
The biggest horror hype of the modern Internet age, The Blair Witch Project, emerged from Sundance as The Witch did, with a very strong word of mouth. Blair Witch went on to become one of the most profitable films in history (in terms of cost of production subtracted from total box office receipts); The Blair Witch Project was backed by an ingenious marketing strategy that got people in the seats, but many of the people who left them were not happy, and history has been unkind to it in retrospect.
Back in 1999, Blair Witch was able to walk the line of selling that the found footage film was real footage from three filmmakers who went missing after documenting local folklore and seeking the titular witch in the Maryland woods. A website built up the mythology and offered printable missing person handbills for the “filmmakers” (using the actors real names, who’d never received a prior acting credit). Movie-poster-quote-whore Peter Travers got his “Scary as hell” declaration into Rolling Stone in enough time to be splashed on the official poster. And by that summer, 21 million people had visited the blairwitch.com website before the film was released (roughly 13% of all people who had internet access in 1999). This hype machine churned out a $250 million worldwide gross. But that’s where the success story ends. In all of those millions of clicks and dollars, therein lies the hype. And Blair Witch failed to live up to it, earning F and D- exiting scores from audiences.
What the hype lost in all of those numbers and grades is that Blair Witch isn’t what we expect from a horror film. There are no jump scares. There are no gotcha psych-outs. There’s no spooky score. There’s no blood (only close-up snot sniffles). Rather than pure horror, Blair Witch was an experiment in documenting a psychological breakdown and group hysteria. It was a halfway decent film with an intriguing technique, but it was marketed as the scariest thing you’d ever see in your life. There was a collective feeling of being duped by said hype and the chances of most of us ever watching it again is thin.
The Witch is something you’ll want to watch again. And again. It does provide moments of scares and there are horror elements throughout. There is a proper score. There are nefarious beings and spirits. There is some blood. There are great performances (I was chiefly impressed by the young boy, Harvey Scrimshaw, whose ability to keep his father’s secrets and whose curiosity of breasts both put him into dangerous situations). Relieve yourself of the horror hype—Satan be damned! —and allow yourself to feel the screws of great filmmaking. In that regard, The Witch is screwed tight.