Art and Experience: Critically acclaimed horror film The Witch broke out from the arthouse circuit at the weekend and became a surprise hit with mainstream audiences, making $8.4m (£6m) from a budget of just $1m. Good news all round, huh?
Well, certainly for indie distributors A24, who have previously had relatively small successes with Ex Machina and Room. The opening was the biggest they’ve ever had and its screen average was second only to Deadpool in the Top 10. Also for critics, who had championed the film since it screened at last year’s Sundance and whose words had graced the film’s haunting marketing campaign. But there was one important group who walked away feeling cheated: the audience.
While The Witch landed with almost universally positive reviews (it’s at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes), most came with an important caveat. Yes, the film, a 17th-century-set tale of alleged witchcraft and mass hysteria, has been called “unsettling” and “chilling” but it’s also been referred to as difficult. The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman said that it was “too slow and verbose to become the next breakout horror hit”, while the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane said audiences will “rightly ask if The Witch even deserves to be called a horror flick”.
Due to the more cerebral nature of the film, A24’s original plan was to give it a limited theatrical run, accompanied by a simultaneous VOD release, in what has become a more standard strategy for films of this size. But, given the film’s easy-to-market title, a range of excitable reviews and the fact that horror films are still reliable money-makers, their plan shifted and an arthouse pic was suddenly being offered up alongside Deadpool in more than 2,000 US cinemas.
It was also a smartly picked weekend with just under-the-radar titles such as faith-based epic Risen and sports biopic Race to compete with. After Thursday previews, A24 knew their gamble had paid off with a $630k start, implying a weekend total of $16m. But word of mouth soon spread and the film ended with half that – admirable for a film of this scale but it was already a victim of thwarted expectations.
Opening-night audiences were surveyed and it received a disappointing C- grade via Cinemascore, a company that specialises in gauging the opinion of cinemagoers. The reaction on social media was similarly underwhelmed.