Critics lauded it. Audiences seemed bored by it. Disconnects happen, but this case has a few scapegoats. Trailers have been selling us non-existent films with their dirty lies for years. Here, they may have sold audiences an exciting horror film with mass appeal instead of the niche film it truly was. Between its critical acclaim, audience assumptions, and a trailer that could be seen as deceptive, there was no real way for this film to win everyone over.
Editing alone can make or break a film or turn one film into another. Editing turned a deliberate, slow moving film into a fast paced, jump scare horror film thanks to the trailers. Combine that with the positive critical reception heaped on this film and audiences went in with high expectations for a film that they were never going to see. Disappointed horror fans left the theater feeling cheated and rightfully so.
Categorization of this film is another hurdle. Although this was marketed as pure horror, “The Witch” is more complex than that. It is horror, but equal parts period drama, character study and psychological horror. That alone might not make it niche, but the language of the film alone does.
When a person walks into a theater to see a foreign horror film, they go in with expectation that not only will they have to read subtitles, but they may need to see it more than once to get the full effect. The mere prospect of subtitles weeds out certain film-goers that may find it too tedious. I don’t feel this way, but I can understand why an individual would not want to read while they’re trying to be scared. This film would have benefited from subtitles as it is spoken in 17th century English instead of contemporary English. It’s not a language we hear on a daily basis, let alone understand well. When people speak, they don’t always enunciate which is a serious detriment when the language you’re hearing is unfamiliar. Details are lost and vital information about the narrative or the characters goes unrecognized.
Pacing is the last issue. “The Witch” is a slow burn horror film. That alone places it in a subcategory that would leave audiences expecting an exciting film disappointed and bored. People prefer either “Alien” or “Aliens”. Both are acknowledged as incredible films but the different approaches to pacing appeal to different people. Even that comparison isn’t quite accurate as this film never reaches the frenetic energy of “Alien’s” second half. Instead, Approach “The Witch” as you would an art installation instead of a roller coaster. Do not expect the tension to reach a true fever pitch as one would expect in the genre. Like everything in this film, it’s climax is subtle and subdued.
This film has so much going for it including beautiful cinematography, an arresting story, top notch performances from both the veteran and child actors tapped for it. The best thing is how carefully director Robert Eggers has crafted the atmosphere of dread and paranoia. The fact remains that this is fundamentally a niche film within the genre. Although I highly recommend this film, I do so with stipulations. Be prepared for what kind of film this is and above all else, watch it with subtitles. Perhaps this will be another case of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and this film will get more respect from audiences and become a cult classic later.