The VVitch: Horror done right

A movie like this is something that happens only once or twice per decade. Ever so rarely, the stars align and a brilliant writer and a brilliant director, (in this case, the same man, Robert Eggers,) and a cast of brilliant actors all decide to work on, of all things, a horror movie.

But those are still not the only conditions for lightning to strike. All these talented people must be working on an unheard of title, one that is not part of a franchise, and not featuring any huge names, thus keeping creative control in the hands of the creatives, instead of investors obsessed with crowd-pleasing and money-making.

When these rare circumstances are met, a gem can be produced.

I think it’s a shame this was marketed as a horror movie. While it was chilling, and unnerving, and made me feel more scared than any movie in recent memory, it is not what people expect when you say ‘horror.’

Audiences have come to expect a jump-scare every five minutes, screaming, gore, a scary monster, and lots of deaths. ‘Horror’ movies are the kind people put on with a group of friends and watch while chatting and joking and smoking and drinking, only checking the TV with half their brain to see if something shocking or scary is happening. I know I’ve done this kind of movie-watching myself, and there are plenty of movies designed for that experience. The trailer for The VVitch seemed to promise just that kind of movie.

But to many people’s disappointment, and to my extreme enjoyment, The VVitch is a different kind of movie. It’s the kind meant to be watched with full attention, by yourself, or with a select one or two other quiet and focused people. The music and the scenery build an ambiance, the ambiance builds a tension, and the characters convince completely, and draw you in–but none of this is possible without the viewer’s full attention. If you are looking away, chatting with your friends, answering your phone, chasing your kids–then you might be left with the impression that not much happened.

It might sound like this is some kind of abstract art-movie. That is not the case. There is a clear, easy to understand plot. There are well defined, understandable characters with different desires and feelings–it’s very easy to get what’s happening. The only thing you might miss out on, if you aren’t paying attention, is the fear.

If you watch it like I did, alone, with headphones on, in the dark, you’ll be surprised that some people were not scared, or were even bored. Only 15 minutes into the movie, something so horrible happens that my mouth was hanging open, and I was thinking, “are they really doing this?” But looking back on it, almost nothing was shown. Everything was implied. And this is how fear works: if you can’t see something, your own mind fills in the gaps in the most terrifyingly creative ways. No film that actually shows it could ever match that fear.

And yet it seems that these memorable moments, though shocking to me, just flew right by other people. When I was googling to find out where the movie was filmed, (the forest was so striking I wondered where it was,) google suggested some search results, which are apparently very commonly searched questions: ‘what happened to the baby in The Witch,’ and ‘what happened at the end of The Witch.’ That these are such common searches left me confused and worried for the average person’s mind.

But when audiences have become so used to the average Hollywood movie, which explains what is happening at every moment, through constant dialogue where the characters say exactly what they are doing and why–maybe I should expect that people will be confused by a movie that shows instead of tells.

And so much effort and research is put into the showing, from the title itself, (the ‘VV’ is because ‘w’ was not in common usage at the time the story takes place,) to the costumes, to the dialogue (much of which was taken directly from letters written in that period.) Even the supernatural events were the result of study, and attention to detail.

But all this artistry is meaningless to someone who goes into the theater (ah, remember theaters?) expecting traditional horror. How many times have you been fooled by a trailer? It’s a frustrating feeling that is all too familiar for many people, and its root cause is the same problem that ruins or hides so much great artwork today: money.

In a perfect world the purpose of a movie trailer would be to let viewers know what kind of a movie it is, and give a little taste of it, so that anyone interested can go watch it. In reality, trailers are designed to get as many people into the theater on opening night as possible. They are designed to make the movie seem appealing to the biggest audience possible, regardless of if it has any reflection of the real content. It doesn’t matter if you like it, only if you buy a ticket, because profit is everything.

This kind of ‘mass appeal’ drivin attitude to trailer creation can often cause the people who would actually enjoy the movie to miss out. Based on the trailer alone I never would have bothered with The VVitch. I only watched it after hearing the opinions of some people whose taste I respect.

So, if you are like me and thought “great, another ‘violin ghost’ movie,” I would encourage you to give The VVitch a shot. It is not for the faint of heart, and it kept me up late the night I watched it. It is scary, but it is also many other ‘s’ words like skilled, sophisticated, smart, subtle, slow-burning and surreal.

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