Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: “The Witch” and Horror Fandom’s Gatekeepers
THE WITCH, the debut feature film from writer/director Robert Eggers, premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it garnered huge acclaim for its painstakingly researched historical accuracy and won Eggers the festival’s award for best director. It then went on to win the horror jury prize at the 2015 Fantastic Fest in September, and shortly after the festival its wide release was announced for 2016. To say that its release into the wider world was not anticipated by film fans in general and horror fans in particular is an understatement.
If this narrative sounds familiar, it is because it is very similar to the release trajectory of two other high-profile genre releases: Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK and David Robert Mitchell’s IT FOLLOWS. Like THE WITCH, both of those films made big impressions on audiences at prominent festivals. The critical buzz started a wave of prerelease hype that had horror fans salivating at the chance to catch these films on the big screen. In a film landscape where studio horror has become increasingly dependent on cheap “found footage” productions, sequels, and the odd film based on a board game, horror fans are always on the lookout for something new, and these films promised just that.
While many horror fans did enjoy these films, a vocal contingent very much did not. These viewers felt the films were overhyped and did not deliver on whatever they felt they had been promised by audiences who had seen the films during their festival run. Going further, some of these dissenters claimed these weren’t even horror movies at all, that they were “boring” and “not scary,” and that “true horror fans” would see through the charade and only dilettantes and “posers” would have anything but disdain for them. Unsurprisingly, THE WITCH was met with the same reaction by many of these same viewers.
What makes this exceptionally frustrating is not the fact of dissent itself — anyone is entitled to their own opinion and feelings toward any film — but that these detractors have targeted three films that work within the genre but are also examples of how genre cinema can explore concepts and themes in ways that less fantastic stories cannot. In short, the rejection of these films appears to people outside of horror fandom as a rejection of cinema as an art form. Critics and cinephiles in general tend to dismiss genre cinema wholesale, and genre fans as well, and seeing members of the community react to these films with such violent negativity only reinforces their image of the “horror fan” as a slack-jawed dullard whose only interests are sex and gore.
For anyone who considers themselves to be both a cinephile and a genre fan, seeing other self-proclaimed fans behave this way is both disheartening and infuriating. I know because I consider myself both of these things, and I know a good number of other intelligent, thoughtful people who do as well. And like most of those people, I was excited by and greatly admired THE BABADOOK, IT FOLLOWS, and THE WITCH. All three films are considerably more artful and deal with much more complex concepts and issues than typical mainstream horror fare. Like anyone else, I have my own opinions about them. I don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t agree that these films are some of the best genre cinema in recent memory.
The problem lies with horror fans whose definition of the genre is so narrow that it somehow does not include stories in which an unstoppable supernatural monster terrorizes a grieving mother and her troubled child (THE BABADOOK), an inexplicable supernatural monster is passed along as a curse between people (IT FOLLOWS), or an isolated family is set upon by a supernatural evil that lives in a foreboding wilderness (THE WITCH). This is especially dumbfounding in the latter case, which is a sort of adaptation of the first horror stories that arose in the early settling of America by the British and eventually led to the Salem witch trials. It’s not just “a horror story,” it is almost literally a prototypical horror story. Like Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST, THE WITCH takes the genre back to primal, lizard-brain territory: fear of the dark, fear of nature, fear of the unknown, and most of all fear of other people — even the ones you think you know. How anyone could come away from THE WITCH and deny that it is a horror film defies reasonable explanation.
Interestingly, this is a point which cinephiles who do not necessarily consider themselves genre fans and those horror gatekeepers have in common. THE WITCH is an intricately detailed portrait of life on the American frontier in the early 17th century. Eggers spent years exhaustively researching the period, and his obsessive attention to detail pays off enormously. Like other recent acclaimed period pieces such as Aleksey German’s HARD TO BE A GOD and Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s THE ASSASSIN, THE WITCH feels less like a replica of a time period and more like someone managed to use a time machine to send a film crew back to that time. The family’s isolated farm and dense forest feel like a complete universe. The precise framing and cinematography by Jarin Blaschke calls to mind Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON, and not just because much of it was shot using natural light.
THE WITCH is unquestionably the work of serious artists, to the point that critics who usually are not interested in genre cinema may find themselves praising its technical excellence while asserting that any film made with such care and intelligence by definition cannot be a “horror film.” In other words both the horror gatekeepers and cinephiles who dismiss genre cinema have narrow definitions of what constitutes a “horror film,” and both seem to believe that any film made at a certain level of quality must be automatically disqualified from being defined as such. I will admit that I subscribe to a broad definition of the horror genre, but no part of it is determined by a film’s production value or budget. It makes sense for horror fans to be impressed by ingenious filmmakers who use minimal resources to maximum effect. It does not make sense for the same fans to shun expensive, handsomely-mounted genre films on principal.
Guillermo del Toro’s insistence that CRIMSON PEAK is not a horror film was a moment in which this conflict between different factions of horror fans moved into a more public arena. With his background in genre cinema, del Toro is a major name in horror fandom. Purposely distancing CRIMSON PEAK from the genre was simultaneously understandable and frustrating. It may not be just a horror movie, but CRIMSON PEAK is unmistakably a hybrid of genres, teasing out and amping up the horror already present in the gothic romance to the point where ghosts drag themselves through the floorboards of its terrifying haunted house and the walls literally bleed. And that’s besides the gruesome murders, including a character who has his skull graphically caved in by blunt force trauma. CRIMSON PEAK may not strictly be a “horror movie,” but it’s certainly not not a “horror movie.”
That said, this deflection was understandable because the film’s marketing emphasized the film’s horror content to the exclusion of its romantic/dramatic aspects. Audience expectations can cause major backlash against films that viewers feel don’t live up to the hype. Horror fans may have expected a loud, garish shriek-show like Jan de Bont’s THE HAUNTING and ended up with something closer to Wuthering Heights with ghosts and some stabbings. Similarly, advance audiences who saw THE BABADOOK, IT FOLLOWS, and THE WITCH described them as extremely scary. THE WITCH even had an unofficial Twitter endorsement from Stephen King. But what the critics and cinephiles at film festivals find “scary” and what the wider public at large find “scary” are not necessarily the same thing. Some horror fans hear this advance praise and set expectations that these films will instantly reveal themselves to be timeless classics like THE EXORCIST or HALLOWEEN, and are inevitably disappointed when they feel like the new films fall short.
The biggest problem with expectations when evaluating any film is that the viewer’s expectations going into the film are not the film’s responsibility. The complaint that “the best parts of the movie are in the trailer” is not a complaint about the movie in question, it’s a complaint about the trailer spoiling the movie. Likewise the complaint that “the trailer made it look like a totally different movie” is a complaint about a film’s marketing, not the film itself. These can be (and frequently are) valid complaints, but they should have no bearing on the viewer’s impression of a film. When most of the films that are now considered sacred texts like THE EXORCIST and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD were originally released, they made such indelible pop cultural imprints because they were largely unprecedented in their form and content as well as their success. These films have been hugely influential, and expecting any new horror film to instantly have the same kind of impact on viewers and the culture at large is expecting the impossible. We’ve had decades to consider the power and influence of HALLOWEEN. As of this writing, most viewers have had hours to put THE WITCH into its context in genre film history.
This blind rush to endorse or condemn a film is hardly exclusive to the horror community. The internet has created an arms race of hyperbole in which viewers are determined to be the biggest fans or detractors of films as quickly as possible. When combined with the passion of horror fandom, this results in equal frustration on both extremes: enthusiastic viewers want to immediately enshrine films in some sort of imaginary horror canon, while those who aren’t fans feel a need to assert their dominance by denying these even are horror films at all. In far too many cases, the latter also includes a blanket condemnation of any viewer who enjoys these films as someone who doesn’t know what “true” horror movies are. This puts them in the position of deciding who is and is not a “true” horror fan.
Which, of course, is completely absurd. There are as many definitions of “horror films” as there are people who watch them, and just as there is no concrete definition of what constitutes a “horror film” there is not one for what constitutes a “horror fan.” But as in any insular community of fandom, the horror gatekeeper defines their identity by their perceived ability to put other people in their place. In the horror community, this also happens to unfortunately dovetail with viewers who find intelligent films “pretentious” and films to which the viewer actually has to pay attention “boring.” To use just one example, these fans find no room in the genre for both FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 and THE WITCH.
The result of this for people who love film and horror is a hesitance to engage with the horror community. It’s very easy to see the care put into THE WITCH, then see these gatekeepers deny its existence as genre film, and come to the conclusion that horror fans don’t deserve artful horror movies. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that it is not a question of whether these gatekeepers deserve better horror movies. The question is whether or not they even want them. Sadly, the answer to this in many cases is “no.” There is an audience for thoughtful, intelligent genre films, and it is up to us to make it known that we are here and that we are looking for films that expand the definitions and push the boundaries of genre cinema.
We will never be able to shout down the gatekeepers, but if the genre is to keep moving forward it is important to seek out and support those films made not just for the “horror fan,” but for the people who love the cinematic art and who happen to love horror movies as well. And it’s equally important to seek out fellow horror cinephiles. Just because we love horror in our own way doesn’t mean everyone else is wrong. It’s important for anyone who’s been kicked out of the clubhouse to stick together, and to make our communities more welcoming and inclusive. After all, more horror fans in the world is a better thing for all of us, because you never know where the filmmaker who may one day make the next REPULSION (or SAW) might come from.