Film critics are up in arms over the general public’s general dislike of the film “The Witch”. They just don’t understand how people could find it boring and they blame people for expecting scares when horror is so much more than that. The critics have concocted all sorts of reasons why the people’s subjective take on the film are so objectively wrong. So I thought I’d take a few minutes to explain why I think the masses walked out of “The Witch” with such disinterest that the film got a C- Cinemascore.
SPOILERS FOR “THE WITCH”
1. False Expectations
If you treat people like they’re stupid, they’ll usually prove you right, whether they’re actually stupid or not. In this case, the studio thought that, in order to sell “The Witch” to a wider audience, they needed to portray it as a movie with big scares so they advertised it as having big scares yet, for some reason, they were then surprised when people came out of the film wondering where the scares were. Now, obviously, there are times when you can go into a film expecting one thing and be pleasantly surprised by getting something different but that rarely happens when people expect mainstream fare and are given an art film, which “The Witch” most certainly is. Basically, if you tell people they’re getting pizza and then you bring a salad, it really doesn’t matter how good the salad is; people are going to be disappointed.
Although, what makes this situation even funnier to me is that the critics deserve blame here as well. I’m sorry but, if you’re a professional writer, you can’t describe a film as scary and then get upset that people were expecting scares. You can write as many think pieces about how horror is more than jump scares but how about you put your vocabularies to work when actually describing the film and use words like haunting, creepy, disturbing, etc. It’s like describing a film as “The funniest movie ever!” and then complaining that people didn’t appreciate how clever it was because they were expecting Funny Ha-ha. Words can shape expectations and expectations often shape reactions. I find it insane that writers apparently don’t take much interest in being precise with their words when they’re trying to sell a film they love.
2. The Accents
“The Witch” is a film that evokes anxiousness more than fright and that approach requires people to really immerse themselves in the film and get into the world and into the characters’ shoes. That’s very difficult to do when you spend much of your time trying to figure out what the heck people are saying.
3. The General Public Doesn’t Care About Craft
“The Witch” is a very well-made film. And the attention to detail, down to the sets being built with period tools, is commendable however the general public doesn’t really care about that. When I was telling people about “The Revenant”, I always told them about how it was shot in natural light and how they could only shoot two hours a day and it was brutally cold but I still knew that, ultimately, that wouldn’t be what carried the film. If people didn’t get into the world or characters, the 40 minutes of Leo wandering around without saying a word of dialogue would be what they thought was truly brutal.
Similarly, “Hail Caesar” might have had some amazing set design and costumes and really nailed the feel of 50’s Hollywood but if the audience is wondering, “What the hell is going on?!” then none of that really matters.
4. Missing Mystery
Hitchcock said that there’s nothing scarier than a closed door. The Witch didn’t have many closed doors. Basically, it had one open door that people kept walking through to their demise.
In an early scene, a baby disappears. Kinda creepy. And then we see a witch (we assume) holding a knife to the baby’s throat. Then the witch is lathered up in blood. Super creepy! What’s next?!
Well, what’s next was what felt like an hour of a family drama while, somewhere in the woods, we know there’s a witch that’s… biding her time? This is where I think the public and the critics start to REALLY break ranks. Critics write stuff like, “The Witch makes the mundane sinister, from the tormented shapes of the corn husks in the field to the weird glow of pewter by candlelight.” But, to most people, it just had a lot of mundane shots while people with thick accents don’t seem all that panicked about what happened.
Critics dismiss complaints of the film not being scary as the rantings of people who need jump scares but the issue is that there was a distinct lack of tension. The father sells the story that the baby was taken by the wolf and nobody seems that panicked about this. For 90% of the movie, the daughter doesn’t even protest that that excuse doesn’t make sense. Nobody seems to be ringing the alarm that the Witch has left the woods once and could attack at any moment and they need to get out of there. The mother is broken up about her baby disappearing and people are upset that it died before being baptized but that’s not exactly edge-of-your-seat material.
When the horror film kicks back in, we see the son being lured towards the witch when she is in buxom lady form. It’s basically the shower scene from “The Shining” except in the woods. The set-up is painfully obvious so basically everyone’s waiting for the woman to turn back into the crazy old witch that we’ve already seen. Nobody expects the kid to turn away from the hottie. Nobody expects anyone to get there in time to stop him. And this is why, when the film did try to attempt a jump scare in this case, it failed. People were more waiting for the old hand to appear than they were nervous about what might happen.
Conversely, the most effective moment in the film is when the mother wakes up to find her two dead children in the bedroom. It’s a scene that is filled with dread as you know something’s not right but don’t know what exactly is happening or what the mother is getting herself into. When it finally cuts to show that what she thinks is her baby breastfeeding from her is actually a crow pecking at her bloodied breast, it’s a moment that will likely live forever in the minds of horror fans and anyone who sees the film.
But that is really the only scene in which we’re wondering what will come next rather than just waiting for it to happen already.
5. Archetypes Rather Than People
For a family drama, there’s really not much to the family. Yes, you can read into the characters as making statements on feminism or religion but you need something on the superficial layers to grab the audience and there wasn’t much to hold onto there. There’s really not a ton of tension. It takes the second kid to disappear for the mom to say she wants to go back but even then it’s more of a general “I hate America” than a “We gotta go! Now!” The daughter sits back and plays her role until she finally lashes out at her father but until then, she doesn’t do much to fight the fact that the “The baby got taken by a wolf” story was nonsense. For the most part, she’s a completely passive hero and the times she breaks from her passivity isn’t very heroic – she freaks out her sister and blackmails her brother into taking her into the woods (where she just rides on the horse to wherever he’s going.)
And “The Witch” is basically a witch. No motive that we know of. No nothing. Just a witch.
6. Lack of Hero/Villain Conflict/Goal
Not only was The Witch just a generic witch that we know nothing about, but there really wasn’t a ton of conflict actually involving the witch in this film. There was a witch. People didn’t like to talk about the witch. Nobody seemed all that pressed to find out why the witch was doing what she was doing or how she could be stopped. She was just out there. If you think the title “The Witch” is generic, wait until you get a load of the actual witch. To add something to the film, the people I went with started wondering if one of the family members was actually the witch. Nope. Just a bunch of witches doing witch stuff.
Honestly, I would have preferred this movie if there was no witch at all and it was just a drama about a family dealing with the father’s decision to accept banishment from the colony, his realizing that he’s a failure, and his daughter bearing the brunt of it as the family crumbles around her.
7. It was an Art Film
There’s an old saying, “Be careful what you wish for because you might just get it,” and this is a perfect example of that. Critics were thrilled when “The Witch” got a wide release but then seemed stunned when the art film played poorly to the general public. This was not a popcorn movie. There’s little to it that plays to the crowd who goes to the film to be entertained rather than see a film and then sit and talk about it and see it again so they can better break it down.
And what frustrates me the most is how critics treat wanting entertainment value as a negative. The fact of the matter is that it’s much easier to make an art film than it is to make a great piece of popcorn cinema. I’m always frustrated when our great writers and directors act like finding the alchemy to make a film that amazes both cinephiles and passive filmgoers alike is easy.
Critics like to pretend that their beloved indie films don’t have as many tropes and clichés as popcorn movies do. But they do. Especially indie horror.
The bottom line is that many people go to be entertained and “The Witch”, to me, was more of a film to be appreciated. Which is fine but don’t be pissy when you sell it as more than that and people walk out expecting more.
In the end, I’m just not sure how critics are surprised that “The Witch” wasn’t a crossover hit. I’m not sure what they saw in it that they thought was going to wow the general public. For instance, Slate’s Katy Waldman couldn’t BELIEVE that the masses didn’t embrace the film’s “commitment to unrelenting, ambient dread” that “helps it evoke the mindspace of its Puritan characters. Rarely have I seen rendered so powerfully the paranoia and terror of Calvinism…” I honestly have no idea how you can type out those words and still wonder how the film might have veered away from the general public.