Worrying About Whether Audiences Love The Witch Misses A Much Bigger Point

Over the past week a number of articles have popped up dissecting the popularity, or lack thereof, of Robert Eggers’ masterpiece The Witch.  Despite basking in critical adoration, the film has received a massive amount of backlash calling it “overhyped”, “not scary”, and “not even a horror film.” Despite an 88% “fresh” rating on critical aggregator site Rotton Tomatoes, only 53% of actual theatergoers The Witch voted that  they liked the film on the same site. While that disparity between critics and fans is not uncommon within horror, those numbers often trend in the opposite direction. The Witch joins some heady recent company of films such as Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and David Robert Mitchell’s  It Follows that won widespread critical acclaim for offering smart, nuanced and unsettling takes on horror on some level failed to connect with a wider audience. This reaction has left a lot of people who write about movies scratching their heads. Yet despite all this handwringing and finger wagging at fans for not appreciating something brilliant when it’s right in front of them, there’s a larger, more important victory that’s being overlooked.

Like It Follows, it’s a minor miracle that a studio gave The Witch a wide theatrical release. Most smaller horror films are given a more limited platform and go straight to video on demand. The critical acclaim Eggers’ film earned coming out of first Sundance and later Fantastic Fest gave A24 Studios the confidence to bypass their VOD plans and put the film on 2000 screens this past weekend. It paid big dividends for the company. After spending a million dollars to acquire the film, it’s earned ten times that investment back in five days. While that might sound like chump change during a period where blockbusters like A Force Awakens and Deadpool are rewriting the record books, it marks the biggest haul for A24 to date, and should give them confidence to take chances on similar genre fare in the future.

When smaller films like The Witch find an audience, horror fans, hell movie fans as a whole, all win. For the past few years we’ve lamented the lack of the mid sized movie. As films have a shorter theatrical run, word of mouth becomes less important, and the opening weekend has become the be-all-end all in to studios. Meanwhile, the American Box office number has become less important as foreign territories, especially China, have become as if not more important than the domestic haul. There’s now an even greater emphasis on spectacle, properties that are ripe for being turned into a franchise and “event driven” films. Explosions translate well in any language. Smaller, character driven films have found themselves struggling to find screens to play on.

Look at the films playing in theaters right now. There’s a foul mouthed gun toting superhero, Jedi, Leo chasing that elusive Oscar, a wise cracking kung fu fighting bear and Jesus. Among that crowded landscape, horror fans were treated to a movie that goes to painstaking lengths to recreate its time period, going as far as combing journals and court documents of the time to create the dense, heady dialogue. The breakout star of the film is a goat. It concerns itself exclusively with centuries old folklore and the puritanical religious concerns of its day. In short, it’s precisely the kind of film that gets relegated to a handful of arthouse cinemas. Yet The Witch has played across the country, and while it’s not a blockbuster, it never had to be. It’s already made enough to be deemed and unqualified success by its distributor, and with that success comes the potential for more smart, ambitious genre films to find a wider audience. That’s something to be celebrated.

As far as the handwringing about horror fans not embracing the film, it seems like much ado about nothing. Over on medium.com Jason Coffman wrote a terrific piece (This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things). I agree with a lot of what Coffman writes, but there’s too much of a tendency to scold fans and tell them what they should like. As much as I love The Witch, I can understand why your average ticket buyer isn’t going to come out of the theater raving about a film as challenging, ambitious and dense as it. I get why your average 18-28 year old that’s single and childless finds The Babadook a drag when they’re expecting a monster movie and get a chilling dissection on the terrors and trauma of parenthood. That’s not going to resonate with everyone. That wouldn’t have resonated with me twenty years ago when I was popping in Texas Chainsaw parts one and two every Saturday night rather than expanding my cinematic library.

Robert Eggers, David Robert Mitchell and Jennifer Kent (to name a few) aren’t making movies for everyone to love and we can be grateful for that. They’re getting to make films that are true to their vision, passions and taste not what a room full of executives and marketers think will pull in the most bank overseas. They’re part of a vanguard crafting brooding, terrifying new horror films that can get lost in the shuffle when straining to be heard above the bombast playing in most multiplexes. Every now and again, a masterpiece like The Witch catches the eye of the right people, and as fans we’re treated to stunning visions of horror projected across two hundred feet of screen. In 2016, this is something to appreciate and savor for as long as possible.

Mike Snoonian

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since 2009 Mike has written about independent horror, science fiction, cult and thrillers through his own blog All Things Horror along with various other spots on the web. Film Thrills marks his attempt to take things up a notch, expand his viewing and writing horizons and to entertain and engage his audience while doing so. When Mike's not writing or watching movies, you can find him reading to his little girl, or doing science experiments with her, or trying to convince her that the term "chicken butt" comes from people putting chicken nuggets down their underwear. at age five, she's too smart to believe most of what he says.

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