Mild to medium-bodied spoilers ahead.
As the end credits started rolling on The Witch – as the ‘Written & Directed by’ flashed up to break the spell of brief, tense uncertainty that held the screen after the final frame cut to black – one of a pair of middle-aged men in the row ahead of me said ‘Ah for FUCK’S SAKE’ and started angrily putting on his coat, his bald scalp glaring as the theatre lights came up. He was railing specifically against the inconclusiveness of the film’s ending – little is resolved, nothing clarified, while whole rank oceans of possible consequence are implied – but you could tell he was also neatly summarising his feelings about everything he’d just sat through. A friend of mine who’d seen the movie previously said that a man in his screening had actually complained out loud all the way through, gifting the audience with a real-time stream-of-consciousness critique, which must have been a tremendous privilege to experience. I’m not sure I’ve ever known a film to provoke such vocal public disdain from punters while at the same time holding 89% on Rotten Tomatoes.
As for the man in the row ahead of me, it was obviously not enough for him to carry his dissatisfaction away home in silence; he had to announce it, he had to offer it up to the hive-mind, tune into a resonance of general, unspoken grievance he detected or imagined he detected in the air. It didn’t quite lead to the communal outburst of relieved fuck’s-saking he might have hoped for, but someone across the aisle did let out an exaggerated horror-movie shriek as, I suppose, a funny joke; this in itself seemed like a commentary on the lack of any ‘scares’ in the supposedly ‘scary’ film we’d all just seen, as well as a kind of sacrificial act that opened an interval in which the audience could breathe, laugh off the film’s toxic weirdness as mere affectlessness or barrenness, recalibrate exactly what the preceding 93 minutes had worked to throw off kilter – namely, the idea of what a horror movie is supposed to be like. These two martyrs, the fuck’s-saker and the shrieker, were providing us with a service: ‘it’s OK,’ they were telling us, ‘don’t worry if that movie had you doubting the received wisdom, made you wonder about the genre schematic that Hollywood has drawn up for us all – that movie was just boring. That movie wasn’t proper horror. It didn’t make you jump once. The music never even went duh-duh-duh-duh-BANG at any point. Go in peace. It’s OK.’
I did feel bad for the bald man: he’d committed his time and money and was going away unedified, massively unentertained. The filmmakers had not only reneged on the contract that had been established when he’d bought his ticket, they’d refused, unbeknownst to him, to sign it in the first place. This was much less his fault than the studio marketing department’s, who’ve insisted on selling the The Witch as something it’s absolutely not.
What The Witch definitely is is Robert Eggers’ directorial debut, a self-subtitled ‘New England Folk Tale’ about a family of Puritan outcasts falling foul of religious hysteria and (maybe) demonic forces on the edge of a (maybe) eponymous-crone-containing wood. (I include those maybes purely for diplomacy, as Eggers arguably rejects out of hand the, by now, fairly well-worn psychological-ambiguity trope. Or maybe he doesn’t.) There’s a lot of subtext about theological patriarchy and female sexuality and if you want to read it as an allegory for the founding of the American psyche, have at it. I prefer not to. The photography is charcoal-plain to the point of monotony and the narrative is largely constructed around long, sometimes stagey scenes of essentially familial drama, delivered through minutely composed KJV-ish dialogue. Somehow all this adds up to something utterly fresh and extraordinary. The sheer restraint with which Eggers deploys his effects is a revelation in itself; the demands he places on his audience approach, in their own way, the sadism of the most hermetic avant-gardist. The rewards, the fear and the blood and the vomited apples and the breast-suckling ravens, are there for the patient. Several reviews I’ve read have noted how much unintentional laughter the film’s been getting out of audiences, and sure enough, a few particular scenes and tableaux – the suckling-raven and levitating-coven bits especially – had the bald man and his comrade, as well as some others sitting around me, in stitches. This was either because A) they found those things inherently funny, B) the film deliberately courts a degree of self-parody (just as the original Wicker Man did) or C) The Witch was just so fucking odd, and the audience so doggily trained to consume horror movies in a way that wouldn’t help them swallow this one, that laughter was their only recourse. I didn’t laugh, but I did find myself squirming around in my seat with a sensation approaching a kind of perverted hilarity.
Despite what the marketing suggests, The Witch isn’t scary in the way The Conjuring or Paranormal Activity are scary (both moves I have a lot of respect for and which interfered grievously with my sleep); it doesn’t even fit comfortably in the ‘prestige’, upper-middlebrow indie horror category like It Follows or The Babadook. I’m not sure it’s a horror movie at all. I’m not sure anyone, not even the critics who’ve rightly lauded it, really knows what it is just yet. It’s art, at any rate, and flawed, but absolutely straining with a sense of cinematic importance, almost by accident: there’s nothing about it that suggests the panting chase for Masterpiece status; it’s as though it’s gone stumbling around the forest after mushrooms and found a prize truffle. I’m not sure, either, that it is a masterpiece, but at the same time I have a suspicion that it very well might be. It’s certainly unlike any other horror film I’ve seen.