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Has Black Phillip Got Thy Goat in THE WITCH?

I’d already reviewed THE WITCH (2015), a movie I definitely liked a great deal. I think Robert Eggers has created a near-masterpiece in this work, and it’s stuck with me after a viewing. I plan to catch it again very soon.

One thing I’ve noticed is that some horror fans have been grousing that the movie isn’t scary, or that the movie shouldn’t be considered a horror movie at all. To my mind, they are getting it fundamentally wrong.

THE WITCH is most definitely a horror movie of the first order. But it’s a horror movie of the type such as:

  • THE BABADOOK
  • IT FOLLOWS
  • LET THE RIGHT ONE IN
  • GOODNIGHT MOMMY

To name a few. These movies (along with THE WITCH) resemble each other far more than they resemble conventional cinematic horror franchises. And, to a certain species of horror fan, they’d say “Yeah, they all SUCK! Totes not scary!”

But I think there’s a difference that’s being overlooked with the above movies. These often get termed “slow-burn horror” in the sense that there aren’t necessarily jump scares in them, but, rather, a pervasive, all-consuming (and growing) dread that builds within them.

Slow Build and Dreadful Atmosphere

And, for a particular horror fan, this slow build might yield insufficient payoff — they want the quick fix of the found footage and gore, and the hard shocks of the conventional horror movie. Paradoxically, these folks are also the ones who complain about how there simply aren’t any good horror movies, anymore.

But I think they’re missing the boat on these new horror movies. I think we’re reaching a point in horror where there are nuances within the genre, itself — and the above movies, of which THE WITCH clearly belongs, there is a proper horror movie being represented that is not a conventional “scary movie” — frankly, I found THE WITCH to be disarming and unnerving, and director Robert Eggers made keen choices in it that paid off. Any conventional scary movie tropes would have cheapened the movie.

As it stands, THE WITCH almost feels like a cinematic hallucination (perfect with the classic ergot references from that era) — Eggers provided beautiful shots, immaculately composed, and made pointed use of color to communicate ideas in it. His woods are a place of uncertainty and fear, and the entire movie feels like the folkloric subtitle — you can almost hear steadfast Puritan prigs tutting over the fate of this family.

Even fans of cinematic horror grouse about the stupidity of the genre. How everything’s been done, and how derivative everything is, blah blah blah. THE WITCH is not derivative (sure, people reference THE CRUCIBLE, but only because of setting and subject matter — I think Eggers gets a great yield from those settings, and has created something of lasting value that will only grow in reputation over time).

I think this movie, and the others like it, represent a way forward for cinematic horror, and I applaud Eggers in taking it in the direction he did, and avoiding the tendency toward self-parody and irony that plagues more conventional horror. If THE WITCH represents a new aesthetic in horror (like its brethren), I welcome it. Beautiful and terrible to behold, the movie delivers, and bravo for Eggers for taking us there.

*D

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