Hollywood’s annual release calendar is divided roughly into thirds: the summer-action season (which actually starts in the spring); awards season, which begins in earnest in September; and the rest of the year, the postholiday winter months when some scrappy genre movies get to fight for screen time against prestige, Oscar-buzz holdovers. We’re currently in the third period, and during the past month a number of horror movies have made it to local theaters. Three of the releases are notable: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Screen Gems release that tanked at the box office; Southbound, a low-budget anthology (or omnibus) film from the Orchard, a burgeoning indie distributor that specializes in youth-oriented fare; and The Witch, which premiered at Sundance last year, won filmmaker Robert Eggers the best director prize, and was quickly snapped up by tastemaking distributor A24. In terms of quality and ambition, they range from inept to impressive, and only The Witch has anything resembling a new approach to the genre.
Burr Steers’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the worst of the bunch, a bloated mess that deservedly tanked at the box office. Based on the best-selling mashup by Seth Grahame-Smith, who grafted zombies onto Jane Austen’s classic novel, the movie strives to be both scary and funny but winds up being neither. There’s never a sense of fear or peril; everyone is too chirpy, including the damned. Steers was the fourth director to take on this project, after David O. Russell, Mike White, and Craig Gillespie successively departed due to scheduling, budget, and casting conflicts.
Southbound, despite its numerous writers and directors, has a clearer creative vision. The movie enjoyed a limited run earlier this month at the Gene Siskel Film Center and has been booked at the Music Box for April 1 and 2 as part of its popular midnight series. Being, by definition, a compilation of stories—often by different writers and directors—a lot of omnibus movies are uneven. But Southbound strives for unity and mostly succeeds. All five of its stories involve road trips in an unnamed, hostile desert in the American southwest. Sin, guilt, and paranoia permeate each tale, but nowhere as effectively as in the movie’s centerpiece, the nightmarish “Accident,” written and directed by David Bruckner. Mather Zickel, an actor often cast in comedies (Hail, Caesar!), plays it straight as a driver on a lonesome highway late at night, who, distracted by his cell phone, hits a woman who runs in front of him. After considering leaving the scene, he drives her to the nearest hospital, which inexplicably appears abandoned. In the first and last stories two buddies are pursued by floating creatures that resemble a hybrid of a spider and a jellyfish. As CGI monsters go, these are on the cheesy side, but their rough-hewn quality is appropriate for a movie in which viscera is dripping everywhere.
The Witch, on the other hand, is a meticulously crafted chamber piece. In 1630s New England, a family is cast out by a Puritan community because the parents’ brand of excessive piety—and perhaps their humble economic circumstances—offends the status quo. Our sympathies are with the family at first, as they build a hardscrabble farmstead on a remote tract of wilderness at the edge of a thick forest. But gradually it becomes clear that the parents’ obsession with Satan, sin, and temptation has contaminated their blameless children.
Arthur Miller’s drama The Crucible, about mass hysteria during the 17th-century Salem witch trials, was also an allegory for the witch hunts of the Red-baiting McCarthy era. The Witch could be interpreted as an a reflection of frightening ongoing national battles over childbirth and women’s rights to self-determination. As in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), defenseless children are targeted by demonic forces. In The Witch paranoid accusations begin when the infant boy disappears (prey to wolves, or ritual sacrifice?) and escalate with the resentment of teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who learns that due to her budding womanhood she’s to be sent back to civilization as a servant to a richer household.
As Thomasin rebels, other threats arise, and the nearby dark wood increases its hold on the family members’ imaginations. Like the western, horror is a genre well suited to examining tears in the social fabric. Because The Witch is sparing in its use of special effects and generates suspense and foreboding through what is suggested rather than what is seen, throughout the film the audience is forced to consider where danger really emanates: From intolerance, isolation, or zealotry? From hallucination or supernatural possession? Or is the danger truly hidden, deep within a woman’s vagina? Early Christian patriarchs vigorously attempted to wipe out competing ancient-goddess cults centered on female fertility. It’s telling that the logo for the film displays the “W” in “witch” as “V V,” two V’s split apart. Like slasher films of the 1970s and ’80s, The Witch is about penetration and misogyny, but it doesn’t take the stance that its heroine victim has it coming.