It’s possible to define the horror genre via a handful of bullet points, ones you can pretty much rely on whenever you venture to your local multiplex to see the latest ‘SAW’ or ‘Final Destination’. Jump scares, gore, sex, and a set of ‘rules’ an entity, premise, or characters abide by serves to satisfy what modern audiences expect and in some cases demand, but is it what they actually want?
Robert Eggers’ ‘The Witch’ is an altogether different brand of horror film. In fact, there may be hardened genre buffs out there who’d say it wasn’t so much a horror in terms of prompting an underwear change, and more of a spine-tingling period drama, and I’d be one of these naysayers so clealry desensitised to whatever Eli Roth’s been burning onto my pupils over the last 15 years.
But do not be fooled: you won’t emerge from this unscathed and jovial in spirit. Quite the opposite, in fact, and for slightly different reasons than you’d exit an ‘Insidious′ movie, for example.
Rather than a film purely about scares and the explicitness of them, Eggers invites us to truly buy into the folklore, lifestyle, and mythology: the witch herself, the notion of religious influence, and the conflicting sets of rules that binds them together. We’re encouraged to delve into the lives of this deeply religious family and to invest in their well-being because of how impeccably and authentically everything is set-up: from the painstaking cinematography, to the authenticity of their wilderness abode and 17th Century attire.
Above: Religion and the supernatural form key themes throughout.
Yet it seems this is a film that contains very few genuinely horrible scares and at the same time still offer the same edge-of-your-seat, unbearable experience with its intense, foreboding nature of what’s around the next corner. (In this case, it’s not so much what lurks behind a concealed doorway, but what’s in store in the following scene that joins a narrative or, as is sometimes the case here, what unpleasant aftermath individuals wake up to when dawn breaks.
However, is this what today’s horror audiences want? While some are content with what’s often described as a ‘brainless experience (and I do really hate that phrase), there’s always going to be those who want more; those who wish for a little more subtlety, or ambiguity or, dare I say, intelligence.
And there’s absolutely no reason why a horror film cannot be extremely clever and thought-provoking. 2014′s ‘The Babadook’ felt sufficiently layered and simmered with subtext rather than simply focusing on visualising a shadowy monster under the bed or in the closet. Similarly, indie horror, such as this year’s ‘Nina Forever’, can perform a sterling job of packaging itself as horror but is more humanising drama that has plenty of meaning beyond its blood and naked flesh on show.
Above: Black Phillip is arguably the most disturbing movie creature of 2016.
Being a slow-paced, gradually unravelling story that ‘The Witch’ is might turn some off - you won’t find the usual quota of cheesy dialogue, nudity and fumbled that often occur in mainstream horror. Here you’re presented with a family of people living in a secluded opening of woodland in the 1630s. Sure, it’s not what you’d consider a date movie per se or boisterous Friday night viewing with your mates, but is the genre still really just about those very basic appeals? Fortunately ‘The Witch’ approaches the genre in a far more concise way that’s never restricting to the traits we’re familiar with.
It’s clearly a difficult - no, impossible - task to appease everyone, but if horror and all its sub genres that accompany it strive to move towards a more thought-provoking way we engage with its films, then surely that can only be a good thing for the progression of the genre itself as well as a demand for intelligent filmmaking?
Picture credit: Universal Pictures