How 'The Witch' Accidentally Launched a Horror Movement

The Witch-Photofest Still-H 2019
In the four years since the film premiered at Sundance, the term elevated horror has taken over the genre.

There's no better needle skip in conversations orbiting horror's status as pop culture's newly minted genre du jour than the two word trigger phrase "elevated horror," and if there's a horror film worth singling out as the spawning ground for said trigger phrase, it's Robert Eggers' The Witch. The fault is neither Eggers' nor his film's; his only crime is making a movie, and the movie's only crime is being masterful. Directors only have so much control over the narratives that pop up around their work, which is to say  none at all.

All the same, as horror enjoys increasing prominence in pop culture. As the movie season switches over from spring to summer, culminating with the August release of Midsommar, Hereditary director Ari Aster's latest exercise in sophisticate horror, "elevated horror" still occupies too much space in horror's modern lexicon. Studios and filmmakers alike embrace its use when pitching their wares, while critics, partially responsible for the term's proliferation in the first place, publicly interrogate its meaning as a descriptor when "horror" alone should suffice. It's chaos in the streets.

There isn't a better movie for putting to rest the idea that horror need be elevated to be valuable than The Witch, and so it's an infernal blessing that the film has recently the 4K Ultra HD treatment via Lionsgate: Eggers' "New England Folktale" both bears all the markings of what four years since its premiere at Sundance has come to define "arthouse horror" for a confederacy of viewers.

The The Witch, in several words, is a machine built to fill audiences with pants-soiling terror. It doesn't screw around. In the first ten minutes or so, we're going from one family's religious exile to a baby getting ground into flying ointment by a truly ancient and clearly evil crone. That's the film's thesis statement: Centuries ago, in the earliest days of the land that would be known as the United States of America, when people were ignorant on a scale most of us would consider comical in 2019 (while perhaps admitting that we're all still pretty ignorant now), people believed in witches, believed that Satan dwelled in the woods. Eggers' own research into his chosen period yielded the stuff of the film's script, accentuated through aesthetics and style and a willingness to Go There™, whether through gory infanticide or poisoned apples.

"Elevated horror" is a reassurance. "Don't worry," it says soothingly, "this horror movie isn't a mindlessly violent, totally exploitative slasher or torture porn flick. This horror movie is serious. It's art." If we're being fair, there's merit in reassuring the uninitiated; those of us who once were young probably remember watching a Friday the 13th movie for the first time and feeling dirty about it, like we were breaking rules no one ever wrote down for us. Watching simulated murder acts on screen qualifies as a big social taboo, an unwritten party foul but a party foul all the same, so when Jason Voorhees kills a man with a lit road flare, as the fear sets in, so too do guilt and shame set in.

"Elevated horror" skirts around those feelings. "Elevated horror" wants viewers to buy into the buzzword and feel better knowing they're not about to art film designed to make them feel like they're engaging in obscenity. The Witch doesn't care about your feelings. True, it's very, very pretty, and true, it's very, very well-paced, and yes, true, it's impeccably acted, Anya Taylor-Joy's career-making performance as young Thomasin a particular standout. (Not to overlook the rest of the cast, of course. Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson make quite the impression together too.) But while The Witch saves its best material for last, it doesn't save all of its material for last, and whiles away the time between shots of trees swaying in the wind to the tune of nyckelharpas and wailing chorale incantations by killing babies, killing children, and ultimately killing everyone else.

Horror, The Witch reminds us today, can be, and frankly always has been, artful without denying audiences' expectations or dismissing the genre's needs. A crafty copywriter could boil away the film's substance by calling it, for instance, a "chilling period drama" instead of a horror movie, and that might incline more people to watch it. But all the crafty marketing does disservice both to individual films and to horror writ large. Even the grimiest slice of B-movie trash constitutes art; they're just not what anyone would call "high" art. And besides: "Movies," the eminent Pauline Kael once opined, "are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them."

Horror doesn't need to hew to respectability norms to be worth watching, and it doesn't need egghead argots to sell it. And while The Witch long ago inadvertently planted elevated horror's seeds in pop culture consciousness, it pours contempt on the absurd notion that horror must be dignified to deserve attention.