Art House Horror and the Difficult Task of Managing Expectations

I love horror films. To me, there’s nothing more interesting or exciting than a competently made film that scares me, or makes me dread turning off the lights before I go to bed. Last week I saw The Witch in the company of a few strangers at The Arclight in Hollywood and I continually found myself wishing that I’d stayed home spent my afternoon watching a B rate film on Netflix. To be fair, The Witch wasn’t awful. I’ve been a part of two very poorly made genre films so I know first hand how bad things can get, and The Witch came nowhere close to my experience with failure, but it never managed to actually become a horror film. At best, the film felt like a list of things that give the director, Robert Eggers, the heebie jeebies. Which is fine! We should all be so lucky as to get to make a moody set piece based around stuff that makes us look over our shoulder as we walk down a deserted street in the middle of the night. The core of my dissatisfaction over The Witch is not that the movie isn’t good, it’s that I yet again mugged myself and jumped on the hype machine for a movie that’s just okay.


We’re all susceptible to marketing, and the marketing for The Witch was incredible. The trailer for the film is far more frightening than anything offered up in the film, which is almost an argument for cutting The Witch down to a short but that probably wouldn’t fix the problems of the film either. One of the main sticking points for me with The Witch is the constant reminding of the public that Eggers spent four years researching the history of witchcraft for the film. Who cares? One of the best things about art is that it doesn’t require a scholarly approach to make something great. As far as I know John Carpenter didn’t spend a decade performing tireless research on suburban Illinois, he just made a spooky movie. Horror is like punk rock or hip hop, anyone can do it. And in the hands of someone with a great idea or something interesting to say you can get kicked in the stomach and never recover, but if it’s mishandled you just have something resembles a bunch of other bland stuff that should be shoved in a drawer labeled content.


It was impossible to watch The Witch without thinking of the think pieces I’d stupidly read leading up the premiere of the film. I found myself wondering what each scene said about feminism, and whether or not there was a kind of electra complex taking place in front of me. The girl does kill her mother after disrobing her father, so maybe there’s something there. But after thinking about the film all weekend I’ve come to the conclusion that The Witch had nothing to say other than “Doesn’t this stuff look neat?” Which is fine. No artist is under an obligation to answer questions in their art, and more often than not the work is more interesting when it creates more questions. Unfortunately I came away wondering if there was a point at all.


This has happened to me before. In the last couple of years, each of the big art house horror films have managed to work their marketing magic on me in a way that compels me to read countless articles and shell out hunks of cash in order to leave a theater underwhelmed by third acts that take David Byrnes advice and stop making sense, or films that decide to make too much sense. It Follows and The Babadook are two films that I had incredibly high hopes for, only to be disappointed when the credits began to roll (more so for It Follows than The Babadook, which has one of the best first halves of a film I’ve seen in years). I don’t think this is the end of horror cinema by any means. If anything, a film like The Witch doing so well will mean that more writers and directors will get a chance to tell their stories, and put their decade of research into abominable snowmen or whatever to practice. Something like this can only be good for the genre. My main concern is that I’ll be duped again, and be forever a fan with stars in my eyes.