(This is pretty spoiler-heavy for a lot of more recent horror movies, so be forewarned)
My girlfriend and I watched The VVitch finally, a movie I’d been pumped for and got a lot of good hype.
The VVitch got a lot right about what works in scary. The idea of a slow creeping Satanic influence on a hypocritical and faith-challenged (a huge part of the story) Puritan family where so much of the story is tied into their day-to-day life creates not so much a sense of fear as a sense of depression, one punctured periodically by sharp but horrific moments that cement It’s incredibly bleak, right down to the little things like the perpetually washed-out look of Puritan clothing, even the very landscape. Also, the score works brilliantly, building in almost uncomfortable ways to peak scary loudness while other times being nonexistent.
Interestingly enough, a movie that it reminds me of was Crimson Peak (which I really liked), another movie I really liked that ultimately, only really suffered from the three-pronged wrongness of bad marketing/audience expectations based on marketing/the current horror market. Crimson Peak was basically a classic gothic romance/horror movie, marketed as some sort of supernatural ghost story. From what I read, it definitely created a backlash against the movie because of the way that the movie was presented to a potential audience versus what the film, which is gorgeous and wonderful and spooky and very much in the vein of stuff I like, actually was.
In that way, The VVitch probably suffered from that false-but-necessary marketing that mars horror movies these days seeking an audience. People expected, I think, a traditional horror film, a traditional “Satanic possession” in the vein of The Exorcist, (which is excellent) or even more recent stuff like The Exorcism of Emily Rose (which I’ll admit to not having seen in a while).
Whose fault is that though? I mean, so much of modern horror is basically about ramped-up jumpscares, violence, gore, and panic moments, despite the rise of different horror that is definitely creating a niche for itself as smart and weird in a non-conventional way. The mainstream horror movie market is pretty much all about those shitty jumpscare moments, and if you want to sell a movie to those theaters, you kind of have to press with the scary bits, not the smart bits. There’s a reason a movie like It Follows, which was one of the legitimately-scariest horror movies I’ve seen in years, is such a little indie hit, because trying to pitch it as a horror movie to be taken seriously as opposed to the hokey joke that the twist (the demonic curse passed on like an STD) could easily be is hard. It probably was hard, which sucks, because like I said, It Follows scared me so intensely, being less about sex than about existential terror. What good is life if you’re constantly in an unknown fight to try to defend it, never knowing just how far ahead of that creeping death you are.
That kind of thesis in a movie isn’t easy to sell in a trailer. A scary movie is, in pop culture consciousness (partially a self-crafted niche), a good time, an easy fun time to get a quick adrenaline rush. The idea that a horror movie should be a movie to think about a concept that relates not to external scares but to internal fear and insecurity is a hard one to sell, which leads to this sort of “movie not what was advertised” situation, which can sort of suck. I understand when a film isn’t what you expected in a negative way, ruining a film experience.
However, it’s important to acknowledge that a genre like horror be allowed to breath, and that we try to not get so bogged down into a trap of the same old monsters, the same old horrors. Bringing different kinds of horrors, be they sex-transmitted demons, murderous & haunted incestuous twins, or the unspeakable terror of a new world and its natural evil, they can be just as shocking as possessing ghosts and serial killers and found-footage demons.
There’s also an element in The VVitch related to this in the movie Valhalla Rising, where the last 1/4 of the movie takes place in what’s presumed to be pre-colonial North America. Even before that in the movie though, we’re made intensely aware about how after all the axes and swords and blood-feuds and fanatics, the real enemy, the one we always fight and never defeat, is the earth around us. VR, a Viking-esque movie that’s not really action, horror, or psychodrama, reads largely about fate and acceptance as a singular spoke on a very large wheel. There’s even Christian fundamentalism here too like in The VVitch (in the form of early Crusaders hoping to somehow sail to the Holy Land), men who are, like the family of The VVitch, consumed by the futility of trying to fight against the earth, either killing each other or being killed by the First Nations people who live in this land that the characters refer to as Hell (implied to be North America).
That’s basically the root of the true horror of The VVitch, that their world is out to get them. It just so happens that evil, true Satanic evil is a part of that natural world. Weirdly enough, that sort of verifies The VVitch, which is so deeply rooted in Puritan fear and uncertainty. It’s not about jump scares, it’s about deeply-felt uncertainty not just about everyday life, but about everyday spiritual life, which was the daily fight against the influence of sin. The corruptions of witchcraft is ultimately secondary to just how shitty their lives are, and how much of it is this family’s fault through their (initially) unfailing radicalism.
Good horror is about the uncertainty of life. It’s about finally coming to an understanding that there are horrific things out there that can do so much, that have so much power over you, you’re no longer the top of the food chain. You are not the ultimate power compared to a good horror movie scare. You’re just a speck of dust, a girl praying furtively that she be good despite the rhetoric fed to her, despite the temptations to give in to laziness and selfishness, despite the lure of evil all around her.