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Hype and Expectations: ‘The Witch’

This weekend sees the long-awaited arrival of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, a horror film that comes into theaters on a tidal wave of praise. It’s a good movie, capturing a sober and classical tone that helps sell the arcane events that occur during the film’s 93 minutes. But it also represents a growing problem plaguing the horror genre — ridiculous hype that threatens to scuttle a perfectly nice time in the movie theater.

The old Spider-Man adage about great power requiring great responsibility is a fitting one for this rise in festival hype and the potential fallout that comes from it. Pull-quotes and social media marketing helps awareness for smaller films but it also puts audiences in a pickle when their hard-earned discretionary income is squandered on misleading properties. In recent years the access has gone up in early screenings and with that wider net comes more hyperbole and the need to be louder to stick out in the crowded world of online criticism. To many, seeing a film early creates an exclusivity that can be mined for attention and recognition. The need to be first overrides the responsibility to the audience to provide lucid and fair criticism and as a result the hype reaches critical mass. Where the damage is really felt is in the mainstream, because broad appetites aren’t as attuned to the nuances that elevate many fringe films. The Witch is certainly a film that will be affected by the hype and expectations it’s riding into theaters.

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The film won the Director’s Award at Sundance last year, so there is a precedent for legitimate buzz. But it is most certainly not nearly as broadly accessible a horror film as most would believe. It’s an exercise in tone and slow-burning tension that showcases the power of religion in ways that push right to the envelope of taboo, especially in the dynamic of a small family excluded from the rest of society. Watching a family, including young children succumb to the horrors of The Witch may be too much for some audiences to endure as will the Satanic overtones throughout the story. The allegorical parallels to modern society also with tweak a nerve or two.

It’s a small film. Graceful and subtle and with oftentimes difficult to decipher dialogue due to Eggers’ decision to be authentic to the period. It also has a structure than some may find lacks the gut punch the build-up alludes to. It’s a solid independent horror movie, and if the expectations were a bit less overt, it’d be one of those movies that was a grassroots hit. It’s more authentic and prevents overhype. As it stands more than a few audience members will come out of the theater wondering what all the buzz was about.

That’s the thing about buzz. It can be a weapon that works counter to the intentions. Time will shine brightly on The Witch after everything equalizes but like The Babadook and It Follows the hype and expectations are just a bit too much for what are essentially elegant boutique horror movies.

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