Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” You know what he means; you’re watching a scary movie and everything gets tense — the music rises, the scene grows dark and the protagonist investigates the loud noise. Then, you grip your seat. Your stomach drops, and you look to your side to see if your date is scared, but of course they’re not. It’s just you.
If we are to judge horror films on their ability to raise tension, to make the audience feel uncomfortable, then Robert Egger’s “The Witch” is a rising star. Debuting at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, “The Witch” was received with much acclaim. Its theatrical release came soon after, and even more praise followed. Everyone seems to have been cast under its spell.
Perhaps it has to do with how the film presents its horror: very cleverly. One of the first hints of something going awry is a rabbit — normally a gentle, innocent figure — turning wicked simply from being presented in a creepy atmosphere.
The film’s score only reveals itself in times of discomfort. It both alarms the audience about an impending spook and subverts their expectation of the result. There were several times during the film when I braced for the impact of a scary surprise, but nothing appeared. That mixup unnerved me. If I couldn’t rely on the music to alert me to the scare, what could I rely on?
In this respect, “The Witch” does horror well. The terror presents itself slowly, but I’d argue that this might also be a weakness of the movie. The film isn’t so much a horror movie as it is a slow-paced, spooky thriller. Egger does a fine job of ramping up the tension, but the bang never comes. Even in the final moments of the film, as the audience waits for some kind of catharsis after 90 minutes of building pressure, the scene cuts to black.
Perhaps this was intentional, but most college students won’t lose any sleep over “The Witch.” If you have a penchant for feeling uneasy in a dark room full of other uneasy, sweaty people, this movie won’t disappoint. Just don’t go in expecting to walk out of the theater paranoid of your own shadow; it’s just not that kind of horror.