The Witch and Modern Horror: The Difference Between Critic and Audience Expectations

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by Nathan Ellis

Leaving the theater after Robert Eggers directorial debut The Witch, I found myself smiling and squirming with excitement as if I had a secret to tell. It’s a film that makes you feel unclean and full of a dignified wickedness for indulging in it. Yet, ‘scary’ is an inappropriate, almost damaging adjective to use when describing or marketing this film to an audience. In fact, based on the user review system for most aggregation sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, I’d say it’s a fair assessment that crowds genuinely hated The Witch.

It would do little good to claim that there’s a difference in modern horror and classic horror, or how older generations and newer generations react to their current era of the genre. It would do little good because hindsight has shown us that even iconic horror staples like The Shining and Alien were widely panned on release. The aforementioned Kubrick film was nominated for a slew of the first Razzie awards (the cynical and satirical opposite of the Academy Awards), but is now considered one of the greatest examples of horror cinema.

If films like House of the Devil, The BabadookSpring, The Guest, and It Follows are any indication of how huge the gap between critical reception and audience reception can be. It stands to reason that similarly paced but highly lauded examples like Rosemary’s Baby and Psycho would be equally despised by the public for being “boring” or “not scary enough”. With the benefit of time though, both professional snobs and mouth breathers alike have come to look back on these movies with a sentimentality that is downright confusing given the initial consensus.

While it can be difficult to rationalize or even understand some of this long term behavior, time stands out as a constant factor in how we feel about art. As film becomes older and more tested in its execution as both a form of expression and consumable entertainment, more people are also genuinely interested in studying or appreciating it as they would with music or literature. The double edge to this sword though, is that the wedge between obscenely analytical critics and casual movie goer has never been more apparent.

I don’t expect a working class parent with very limited free time to enjoy The Witch. The movie asks the audience to participate and endure an Olde English dialect, a traditional slow-burn middle act, and a climax that only pays off if you were able to pay attention through all that. Critics forget that not everyone gets into circle-jerk film festivals for free. On the same side of that coin though, entitled consumer vitriol can be even more disgusting.

You paid your 11 dollars, sit down and pay attention. Not every example of the genre has to live up to your rose tinted memories of that one time you saw Hellraiser with your dad, or the well packaged pop horror of The Conjuring. Maybe it would be good for you to learn about Puritan hysteria and folklore while you sit on your ass, watching a movie just because a group of people you have nothing in common with gave it a stamp of approval using fruits and vegetables as a rating system. If you expect every part of your psyche to be magically appealed to simply because you paid the price of admission, exerting no effort to stay present in your local cinema, and then have the nerve to throw a fit that a film in the horror genre made you feel like shit afterwards. I’d say mission accomplished on the director’s part.

Armed with little qualifications to review film outside of repeated consumer dissatisfaction, Nathan will be the one happily polluting Cinema Adrift with long form think-pieces about his favorite cape-shit films. The lack of effort required to stand out above most pop culture journalists is a big inspiration to his writing style. Nathan has co-founded and worked as a contributor on film review and news site Deadbeat Critics, as well as the now defunct comics blog and podcast Haunt of Horrors press. Join him in his pursuit to highlight commercially appealing movies that everyone is already going to see.