Collins’ Crypt: Yes, THE WITCH Is A Horror Movie
(Note - some spoilers for The Witch follow)
Fangoria used to have a recurring column called "It's NOT A Horror Film!" (accompanied by a little cartoon exec next to the title) that would focus on horror films that erred closer to "psychological thriller" territory than, say, Evil Dead 2. Someone from the film would actually usually use that very line when discussing it, sometimes in a dismissive manner, as if it was a crime to be labelled a horror film. I can't recall if it was one (or if the column even existed at that point), but Manhunter* would be a good example of a movie that would appear in this series - sure, it's a procedural thriller, but it's also about a serial killer and contains some truly disturbing moments. And its technical sequel is Silence of the Lambs, which no one ever argues about being horror - especially when the subject of Oscars comes up (as in, "One of the few horror films to be nominated/win ______"). For films like that, I don't really care how it's defined - if saying Manhunter isn't horror means some horror-hating type gets to watch a pretty great Michael Mann film, so be it. If saying it IS horror lends the genre some more of the respect it deserves, even better.
However, I don't have as much patience when it comes to The Witch, which is now on Blu-ray from Lionsgate and will presumably attract lots of new viewers who missed or skipped it during its (successful, but not exactly record breaking) box office run. I can see why some exec types might want to try to downplay its genre "trappings" - it's the sort of movie that could conceivably generate a few awards nominations (production design alone should be a lock, but the Academy rarely pays attention to the design in films that aren't up for the bigger awards) and saying it's a horror movie would inspire that unfortunate bias that will plague the genre until the end of time. But in this case, this "it's not horror!" sentiment is also coming from horror fans, and that's where I take offense.
I first caught wind of this baffling reaction when the film was released in theaters - a few tweets and the the like saying things along the lines of "How can you even call it a horror movie? Nothing happens LOL" or "Pfffft not scary, not horror." I rolled my eyes then, but I didn't actually start getting angry about it until I went to Monsterpalooza a few weeks back, which is a local horror con that celebrates all manner of monsters and horror in general, primarily through panels, displays, and live makeup demonstrations (meaning it's not just about cramming a ballroom full with as many people as possible to sign autographs). At one panel, Ryan Turek (formerly of ShockTillYouDrop and now a development exec at Blumhouse), who was hosting a "state of horror" chat with filmmakers and writers, asked the crowd if they considered The Witch to be a horror film... and an alarming number of people said no. These were not execs - these were the people who shelled out 30 bucks (more for a weekend pass) to spend their Saturday celebrating the horror genre. And to them, The Witch - the year's best horror movie by a mile - doesn't even qualify as one.
I really just don't get it. Yes, like It Follows (which was met with similar reactions last year) The Witch is slower paced than the likes of Dracula Untold or whatever the hell else makes more in its opening week than Witch could hope to make during its entire run, but that doesn't mean its not a horror movie. In reality it's just as slow paced (maybe not even as much) as pretty much any found footage movie, since someone dies in the first 10 minutes (with gory aftermath) and another is possessed (?) and expires with a half hour left. You never see that much "action" in the likes of Paranormal Activity 4, so what makes that a horror movie, if The Witch is not? Expensive forks?
At this point I'd like to make an important exception: I think it's OK to say a movie isn't horror when saying it IS kind of gives something away and spoils the fun. The obvious example is Audition, the 1999 film that blew a lot of minds when first released, primarily because they didn't know what they were in for. Sure, it's fine to throw that movie in the horror section - it certainly earns its spot. But the movie's narrative is also designed to hide any genre elements for a sizable portion of its runtime, so that the audience can be just as blown away when it becomes a horror movie as the characters are to find themselves in one. One might argue From Dusk Till Dawn is another example, though it's not quite as big of a switch as Audition's, which resembles something closer to romantic comedy in its first half wheras FDTD was already dealing in kidnapping, suspense, action, etc - the vampires were just the latest obstacle for our anti-heroes. So if someone wants to say Audition isn't a horror movie while they're recommending it to a friend - I think that's OK, because it's a fun way to mess with their heads (and lower expectations appropriately). However, that's pointless with a movie called The Witch that has a full blown Grimm's Fairy Tale-type witch oiling up her broomstick with baby's blood in its first reel.
It's also got some legitimately great scare moments, all working in different ways. If you want pure terror, it's hard to beat the idea of your helpless newborn brother disappearing literally under your nose while playing with him. If it's jolts you seek, you get Black Phillip goring a main character (and there are a few other startling moments for good measure). And even fans of "WTF DID I JUST SEE?!?!" horror are addressed, with the horrifying shot of a crow "nursing" at Kate Dickie's breast. Add in the possession and appearance of the Devil himself and I have to wonder what exactly these people would require in order to qualify this movie as a horror film. More jump scares? Maybe the heroine walking backwards into a tree or something and screaming because it startled her? Or one of those birds cawing really loudly at a quiet moment? Mirrors were largely a luxury item back in the 1620s so it couldn't have had one of those "really scary" moments where a person closes their bathroom cabinet and the ghost/killer/Black Phillip was suddenly standing behind them, so I hope no one was just disappointed it lacked one of those.
You can even break it down into technicalities and still come out with the same conclusion, that this film is very much a horror movie. Is it a body count that you seek? More people die in this film than the entire Poltergeist franchise (even when you include death by natural causes, like the 2nd film's grandmother). Gore and violence? A woman is beaten with a rock (with blood splattering her attacker's face) and a man is gored by a goat, not to mention a helpless baby being churned/tenderized into a pulpy mess - a far cry from the bloodless, violence-free The Conjuring, said to be one of the best horror movies of the past 20 years. It's also got a physical presence for its villain, so it's got one up over Blair Witch Project. Hell it even has (brief) nudity, if that's a necessity for you - one that even a number of slasher sequels (Jason Lives, H20, New Nightmare...) neglected to offer viewers. In its own way, The Witch delivers on every single thing that a critic of horror could decry such a film for - the same things that "hardcore" fans will lament NOT being in films that rely on more PG methods of terror.
(And yes, it's rated R, so the "PG-13 can't be horror" people also can't argue about this one.)
Curiously, when an equally incredulous Turek asked the Monsterpaloozans to qualify what The Witch WAS, if not, horror, some of them said "Period piece!", which I would have angrily yelled a reply at if I didn't have my son with me. OK, so a period piece can't be horror? I guess that's bad news for The Conjuring, The Others, Sleepy Hollow, The Wolfman, The Woman in Black, and any number of Frankenstein or Dracula adaptations. Funnily, enough, one film that The Witch reminded me of in tone was also a period piece (about 25 years before The Witch's setting) and, like Manhunter, COULD be a valid candidate for the "not horror!" labeling. It's called Sauna, it's incredible, and it's even in my book... in the chapter for movies that aren't quite as horrific as the ones you'll find in the other chapters. Like Witch, it concerns religious devotion taking a toll on people who have been displaced, and if you haven't seen it yet I urge you to do so at your earliest convenience. If you want to say it's not horror, I'll be more open to your argument than I would with The Witch.
Ultimately, I can't help but think, depressing as it may be, that the movie "isn't horror" for these people simply because it has a real narrative, strong acting, etc. - i.e. the things that we're not always blessed with in our genre fare. That writer/director Robert Eggers cared more about telling a story and evoking a certain mood/atmosphere than making teenagers jump every five minutes is, to them, a sin, I guess? I mean, what else could it be? I just can't conceive of any other thought process of someone who watched this suspenseful and scary movie and somehow walked out thinking it wasn't even a horror movie. Again, yes, it's a slower paced film, but it's also not particularly long either - I've seen longer horror films where even less happens. I mean if you don't personally find any of it scary, fine - but since when does your personal reaction dictate a genre? I don't think most Farrelly Brothers movies are funny - but they're certainly still comedies.
I had to refrain from name-calling in the above (I wrote a few out just to get them off my chest, but then I'd go back and delete them) to avoid antagonizing anyone, because I want serious answers here - if you think The Witch isn't a horror movie, please explain yourself. Real talk, no hate. Convince me that you're not just mad that the movie didn't have a lady in a pointed hat cackling and throwing people into large cauldrons. Offer legitimate reasons that this movie doesn't deserve to be in the same genre that gave us Don't Look Now, Possession, Repulsion, The Babadook, Session 9, or The Changeling (yes, all movies that balance drama and character with their scary elements). I may never agree with you, but if I can at least understand where you're coming from, perhaps we can work toward a happy future. A future where a good movie with great performances can also be a horror movie without anyone arguing about it.
* On the brain because it was released today from Scream Factory - a label devoted primarily to horror films. Look for an "Extra, Extra" column on its bonus features later this week!