Tuesday, May 3, 2016

'The Witch' (2016) is Overrated Bullshit.

The best horror movie to come along in years? Try "one of the most overhyped" instead.

By: Jimbo X

Over the last few years, there's been something of a mini-resurgence in critically acclaimed, under-the-radar indie horror. Seemingly finished with the Eli Roth/Saw/Rob Zombie pop-gorno craze and the done-it-to-death found footage fad, today's most celebrated new-new-wave genre flicks are artsy-fartsy, supernaturally-tinged films that run the gamut from legitimately creepy, expertly made psychological thrillers a'la It Follows to really, really mundane, self-mocking homages like Tusk, We Are Still Here and What We Do In The Shadows.

That said, for every legitimately great post-post-horror flick like Resolution or The Babadook, we are bogged down with about three or four really ho-hum, pretentious ones, with such pretentious, "look how much smarter we are than you" titles like Crimson Peak, When Animals Dream, The Falling and Goodnight Mommy. For fuck's sake, there's even one out there actually called #Horror - a rare triply elucidative title demonstrating the genre's infatuation with its own self-reflexivity, contemporariness and utter lack of inspiration.

And the inconceivably critically-acclaimed offering The Witch - complete with its smarmy subtitle A New England Folktale - is pretty much the poster child for everything wrong with modern-day horror. Right now, The Witch holds an 81 rating on Metacritic. Once again proving that film critics are gloriously out of touch with the American-movie going masses, the nation's number one audience poll CinemaScore rates the film a much lower "C-." Interestingly, the thing about the film that movie  snobs are praising is the very same thing Johnny and Joanie Q. Public dislike most  about the picture. If you will, compare and contrast these two reviews - one by professional TimeOut film critic David Ehrlich and the other by some random Internet commentator known only as "Bazza." Now, try and figure out which quote is from whom: 

"The Witch is careful to invite certain ambiguities and avoid others, but the judgment it passes on its characters does not come from on high. [Director Robert] Eggers prefers instead to ruminate on how the compulsion to live without sin might grease the wheels for it (The film's new-world setting naturally implicates America in the process.) A jaw droppingly bold gift from God, The Witch is a major horror event ... Haunting doesn't begin to describe it." 

"Seriously, how does this get such rave reviews? I am totally perplexed that even users on here are saying thing like 'stunning,' 'fantastic,' 'beautiful' when it's anything but ... Almost all of the cinema were baffled by what they were watching." 

Well, if you said the first quote was from an MFA candidate at Columbia who describes himself as "usually very sleepy" and the second is from somebody who probably isn't an annoying hipsters piece of shit, you sir\madame\transpronoun, would be correct. As the disparate quotes demonstrate, the critic\audience point of dissent is apparent: the highfalutin celluloid snobs like The Witch because it is so goddamn nondescript, they can paint whatever bullshit allegory on it they want to confirm their despotic personal biases (which is probably one reason why the film has gotten an endorsement from one of the U.S.'s largest "Satanist" organizations.) Meanwhile, normal human beings - you know, the people who have real jobs for a living and aren't taking out a $200,000 loan to study the sociopolitical intricacies of Tom and Jerry cartoons at NYU - look at the film's bland minimalism and see it for what it truly is: lazy and ambitionless. In lieu of a formal plot, first-time director Eggers just throws red herring after red herring at the audience, leaving everything about the flick opaque until the last ten minutes or so. You don't know if the family in the movie are just a bunch of fundamentalist nutjobs or there really is supernatural hokum afoot or the kids are just imagining all this bullshit or what. Granted, this could be overcome a little if you gave a half-fuck about the characters, but they are so one-dimensional and personality-less that you can't goad yourself into caring if they live or die. Instead of being a character-driven, supernatural drama a'la The Exorcist or Suspiria or The Wicker Man - the very best kinds of horror movies, the ones where the characters slowly but surely realize the world they think they know is something totally different - you just keep waiting and waiting for ANYTHING to come along and give you a clue as to what the hell is actually going on. And like I said earlier, nothing - I mean nothing - really transpires in the film until there's about 20 minutes in screen-time left. 

As far as the threadbare plot is concerned, it's almost hyper-minimalist. The film begins with a bunch of Puritan settlers getting excommunicated from a village for some sort of unspecified transgression. Yeah, technically they say they got kicked off the commune for "prideful conceit," but what the hell over. So the exiled family moves off into the hinterlands and starts a farm and things are going kinda OK but one night, their newborn baby gets kidnapped by some old hag who proceeds to kill him to make some sort of blubbery, unbaptized child flying potion like in Warlock (although without the reference to Electronic Football and mocking of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I am afraid.) Oh, and the infanticide takes place entirely off screen, lest your eyes be offended by such dreadful things. 

Unsurprisingly, the family is pretty distraught over this. The father and eldest son talk about whether or not the stolen infant is going to heaven or hell and the two youngest toddlers tell the eldest sister that they can talk to the family goat. So the eldest son and eldest daughter go out hunting rabbits, but the daughter gets knocked out after falling from her horse and the family dog gets captured by the hag in the forest and ripped to shreds (presumably, for a snack, I take it). Then the witch shows up in the form of Snow White (yeah, I don't get it either) and hypnotizes the 10-or-11-year-old boy with a demonic smooch. 

So the eldest sister comes to her senses, realizes her younger brother is nowhere to be seen and she goes home and her mama almost lays the smackdown on her for letting her sibling get lost, but her dad steps in and saves her keister and the bewitched young boy comes ambling home all dazed and whatnot. He passes out and starts reciting some weird prayer about heaven and dies. Then, the youngest children start saying the eldest daughter is responsible for all of the supernatural shenanigans so the dad says "shut up you little cretins" and locks all of the little shits in a stable with their pet goat and the witch (basically, a wrinkly, lard-assed, stringy-haired old woman ... in short, what Amy Schumer is probably going to look like in about 30 years) breaks in and starts eating all the livestock. Then the mom has a nightmare her dead sons have come back from the dead and she starts breastfeeding the deceased infant but LOLOOPS! It's actually a hallucination and she's letting a huge ass crow peck her titties off. 

And here's where the film takes a hard left turn into crazy town (but uh, not the ones who sang "Butterfly," of course.) The dad finds the kids passed out in the pen with a whole bunch of dead animals everywhere and then the pet goat goes psycho, gores him and kills him. This causes his wife to go stark-raving homicidal, but she winds up getting stabbed to death by her own daughter, Carrie-style. Then the goat starts talking to the eldest daughter, and SURPRISE! It's not really a goat at all, it's actually Satan himself and he wants her to join a coven of witches out in the woods. So she signs her name in an evil guestbook of sorts, strips butt-nekkid (uh, I'm pretty sure they use a stunt double for the nude scenes ... or God, I hope they do), joins a bunch of wrinkly hags out in the woodlands dancing around a fire and ... fin

Yeah, not exactly what I would call a satisfying dénouement, by any stretch. Making it even more unbearable, however, is that the film never really builds to a climax at all. Basically, it is just a series of long, meandering shots of people’s up-close, befuddled faces accompanied by split-second shots of withered hands and dissected barnyard animals for 70 minutes. Worst of all, however, is the film’s irritating attempt at establishing ambiance. Since its one of those artsy-fartsy post-post-modern horror offerings, it eschews the conventional genre gore and jump scares for “tension-building” that consists almost entirely of a.) placing characters in pitch black environs with barely audible/visible monster sounds in the background and b.) constantly playing a shrieking violin chord over the soundtrack. It sounds like I’m being hyperbolic, but I assure you that one looping string note comprises about half of the movie’s audio. Sure, that may have been effective and innovative when The Exorcist came out, but relying on such dated scare tactics in 2016 is just the epitome of laziness.

I know that’s a word I keep using, but it’s for good reason. The Witch is just laboriously lazy, and not just because its plot is uninspired. It’s almost as if this Eggers guy had a quasi-decent 20-minute short film in mind, but he just couldn’t find a way to stretch it out into feature-length, so he just went out into the sticks and filmed a bunch of people in rags saying things in Ye Olde English accents and stitched it together with one-off shots of antelopes grazing and crappy, foam-latex hands stirring cauldrons. By and large, that’s the entire first hour of The Witch, folks – nothing but 100 percent formless, tasteless filler. 

Is the acting any good? Eh, I think it’s pretty unremarkable. Since it’s technically a period piece, everybody overacts and chews the scenery, so you never really get past the idea it’s just a bunch of no-name thespians wearing pilgrim garb screaming at each other with Game of Thrones brogues. The cinematography is nothing to write home about either, and the special effects – what few of them exist, anyway – are underwhelming. 

So why is The Witch being hailed as a contemporary genre masterpiece again? If anything, I’d chalk it up to good old fashioned pseudo-intellectualism. Reading Jason Coffman’s tiring screed over at Mediumin which he attacks populist filmgoer tastes with the irrational fury of an autistic wolverine– explains to a “tee” why so many cinema-dork eggheads and know-it-alls are creamin' their britches over The Witch. It’s a dreadfully boring movie that lacks any sort of profound context, so rather than admit the Great Unwashed might be right about something, they instead make up all of these cockamamie subtextual reasons for why The Witch is a great piece of artwork that us knuckle-dragging denizens of Wal-America are just too stew-pid to understand. I mean, sure, onscreen nothing worth talking about ever happens, but if you read between the lines, you will see that the film is actually a furtive commentary on (insert whatever nonexistent social construct the reviewer doesn’t like.) In review after review, you keep seeing the exact same references pop up – “Calvinism-this,” “primal roots-that,” “religious hysteria-everything else.” Why, if I didn’t know any better, I’d surmise that such nondescript praise simply masks the blunt fact that none of the reviewers can come up with a single contextual reason why the movie is decent, and instead have to default to flowery celebration of the film’s “undertones” and “allusions" to justify their commendations. 

Although many great horror films throughout history have been laden with subtext, the commonality among the all-time greats is that they also have obvious contextual reasons for why they are genre masterpieces. The horror genre is the ultimate “show, don’t tell” cinematic platform: you’re supposed to go over the top with the visuals and wallop viewers over the head with as many stark images as you can dream up. Yes, The Exorcist works as a furtive allegory for geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, but it works even better as a Manichean tale about religion, science and the power of faith – all themes that are bluntly stated within the film’s narrative. Yes, Phantasm can indeed by read as a thinly-veiled metaphor for the fear of parental loss, but it can be read even better as a movie about a transdimensional undertaker who throws flying metallic death spheres into people’s foreheads

That’s why The Witch pales in comparison to similarly-artsy please-don’t-call-us-horror-horror flicks like Antichrist and The Angel’s Melancholy AND mass-produced popcorn genre offerings like The Visit and Goosebumps (two of the more enjoyable “lite” horror romps to come out of Hollywood in recent memory, in my humblest o’ opinions.) Those movies are about something AND they deliver the audiovisual goods. They have real characters and real tension. And the big special effects payoffs – those Grand Guignol “money shots,” so to speak – resonate with you. 

Simply put, The Witch is devoid of all that. Its characters are uninteresting, the pacing is absurdly sluggish, the effects have no visceral impact and the atmosphere is ultimately more perplexing than unnerving. It’s not scary, it’s not engrossing and by the time the end credits roll, you’ll be left scratching your head, wondering if there was anything even remotely resembling a “point” to the entire boring affair. 

The Witch may not be the worst horror film of the decade – lest we forget, Red Riding Hood and the dreadful Elm Street and Evil Dead reboots still exist - but it’s certainly the worst to receive such glowing critical acclaim. Your hirsute hipster art-house galleria friends may like it for its “style,” but if you’re looking for anything, you know, actually entertaining, I fear this is one indie darling bound to disappoint.


One and a Half Tofu Dogs out of Four


  1. I'm not a hater. I truly enjoy movies and I've made some short films myself, I write and I'm a civil engineer. What I want to say is that I do know a little as a person, I'm a capable human being, and I really dislike how people treat me like an idiot just because I didn't like this movie as a scary movie. Is it scary as a movie at all. It's more of a supernatural thriller, almost a drama. Well made, well acted... but really... not scary. And no, I don't need gore or a dumb slasher film to get scared. I guesa what I am trying to say is... thank you for saying this. I was going crazy thinking I couldn't understand the great comments about being an amazing horror movie this one receives. Thank your for every word.

  2. Wow, everyone circle-jerks in the comments section over positive reviews of this film, and you only get *one* comment. Well, I'm gonna say your review of The VVicth is fantastic. I jumped into this movie without seeing any trailers of it at all, unaware of the hype it had, and I personally didn't think it was all that great. I looked up the reviews, expecting it to be bashed by critics like everything else, but was legitimately taken off guard by how many critics are defending this movie like their life depends on it. I've been scrolling through many reviews of this film, *trying* to see it their way on how it's an award-winning groundbreaking masterpiece that defines horror at its roots and whatever, but I just can't. To me, it just felt like an "artsy" take on every other horror movie where a family moves to a new location, gets haunted, and collapses over time form the paranormal stress; like a colonial Poltergeist or Conjuring. I mean, the movie even pulled the whole "dog senses evil so it dies" shtick that everything else does, along with ending on a disappointing twist of the "final girl" trope. Yeah, it tried being more artsie and unknowing in the woods, but all I could really think of was The Blair Witch Project. Also, am I just dumb or could anyone else not really understand the fumbling Old-English dialogue most of the time (especially with the father's guttural voice)? Half the time, I wasn't even sure if they were speaking actual words. So overall, I'm just glad someone else shares a similar opinion as I, and I thank you for making me feel less like a terrible "mainstream horror fan" that the critics oh-so-willingly pointed fingers at for the low audience scores. I guess one thing I enjoyed about the film is that most of the uninteresting cardboard characters died in the end so I didn't have to hear their incoherent, babbling dialogue anymore.

  3. Agree wholeheartedly. I watched it with closed captioning on so the language didn't bother me (except that the accents didn't sound remotly 17th century), but this just didn't work on any level. It doesn't know if it is a supernatural thriller or a psychological study of religious paranoia and ends up failing at both.

  4. The film totally flopped as a "relgious paranoia". If you remember, it was only the twins who insisted the daughter was a witch. The older son and daughter, being young, were naturally superstitious: religion wasn't their main reasoning for fear of the unknown. The father was unshaken by the claims of witchcraft, but still confronted the daughter about it earnestly and accepted her claims of purity (it was only at the end that he threw ALL his kids in the pen, which was more of a "I need to get this bullshit in check" move than "evil be afoot") The mom was batshit insane from the moment the baby was stolen; that's not religion, that's maternal insanity written poorly.

    The ONLY decently written character that used religion was the father; a man struggling with his duties as leader who questions his OWN choices and therefor struggles with his convictions. When the father spoke to God, stuffing his mouth with dirt, I thought that was the only redeemable scene: a man at wits end having a personal moment where he quietly reveals to the audience his own crippling inner-child. The father, like all men, was struggling to be a stoic avatar for his family...he's just a scared human like the rest of em, hurt by loss and unsure. The dirt-eating was a pitiful appeasment to a quiet faith whom he was begging for strength and relief.

    The father used wood-cutting as his alone time, something that I, myself, used in the same way he did: time to reflect and be vulnerable away from the prying eyes of impressionable children. I legitimately digged the father.
    The unfortunate bit (besides everything else in this awful film), is that the director was utterly out of touch with reality. It was dead obvious that the director was using wood-cutting as the opportunity for ol' papa-bear to show some humanity, but apparently that farmhouse is hosting a fucking commercial-grade incinerator; because he chops wood nonstop. The father chopping wood became SO ridiculous that I had to excuse myself from the theatre because I was laughing my ass off. When, in a hilariously moronic (read that as "wonderfully symbolic") twist; Black Phillip gores the father and leaves him to die, surrounded by his precious wood.

    "Youngin's be vexxed, thy wood calleth me."
    "Thy wife be of murderous faults, to thy woods shall I go."
    "Damned goat be Prince of Air?! Away, foul spirit! Taste thy pine! Thy maple be thoust bane!"

    "Tis cold, at thy end. Hold me, wood!"

    Seriously. We get it. He chops wood mr. Director. Yknow, Latter-Day Lumber Liquidator and the director should build a house...with as much wood-cutting as the father did, it'd go perfectly with all that hammering the director was doing of "symbolism".