one thing about seeing a movie with a group of strangers is that the audience’s shared experience can have some effect on the personal experience. that can be a good or bad thing- as two movies playing this week in maine show.
firstly, i gotta say i thoroughly enjoyed the witch, by first time director robert eggers. what a joy it is to see a well-researched, visually-striking slow burner of a horror movie that touches on the supernatural in a subtle and truly disturbing manner. recently cast out of their community, a family in the 1600’s struggles to set out on their own with an impending winter, lack of food and growing mistrust and paranoia take hold. the story of the family’s impending doom, lost faith, their feeling of isolation, the fear of the woods, the lack of community and eventually each other is deeply felt. the cast of unknown actors and decision to use accents and language consistent with the time period add to feeling of authenticity and perhaps helps to alienate audiences that don’t know what they’re getting into.
the film’s approach toward horror contradicts the multiplex expectation for current moviegoers, as evidences by an extremely vocal and rambunctious audience i saw the movie with on opening weekend in lewiston. overheard loudly as the credits rolled “i could have done better than that” from one audience member. there was some laughing throughout and one person said “seriously?!” as the movie ended. whats unusual about the approach of this film’s release is that its being marketed as your average horror movie, and opening wide at multiplexes can be misleading on the part of the movie’s distributor A24. whats great about the approach though, is that it pushes the envelope and possibly breaks new ground for future wide releases of unconventional films in the horror genre. im imagining that my experience at the multiplex is how a lot of the screenings are going, since this low-budget indie is opening across the country on over 2,000 screens. instead of building an audience organically or one viewer at a time, the distributor has decided to go big for maximum impact. possibly some of the people who have said “they could do better than that” will attempt to do so in earnest and we can get a few more gems like “the witch”.
who knows what the filmmakers were thinking an audience response would look like for Roar. made in 1983 and cast with 150 untrained lions and tigers the film is viewed today mostly for camp value. i was involved in getting the film screened at space gallery this past wednesday, feb 24, and a decent crowd turned out. part of whats so shocking about the film is how confused it is tonally. the film tries to stay on course, telling a barely coherent story of a sort of wildlife preservationist named hank-played by director noah marshall- who allows lions into his giant treehouse like home, which is surrounded by water. when his wife, and three children come to visit while hank is away vaguely trying to fend off animal poachers, the family gets to the house and proceeds to hide from the packs of lions who are chasing and sniffing them out. probably about 2/3rds of the movie is taken up with humans hiding from lions, while a totally bizarre, playful orchestestal score somehow attempts to lighten the whole experience by making it sound like a family adventure. the film is notorious for severely injuring over 70 cast and crew members, and while its not hard to imagine that being the case, whats fascinating about the film is its insistence on staying within the thin narrative framework. despite the very palpable and constant sense of danger, the main character seems to be trying to convince the audience that the lions are passive and friendly- even as the lunge at him and knaw gently on his head. its a very surreal viewing experience and the lions seem to literally be ripping the narrative to shreds with their uncontainable presence. perhaps most remarkable is the cinematography, which seems too close for comfort in far too many scenes. cinematographer jan de bont (who went on to make speed and twister) sustained tremendous scalp injuries resulting in 215 stitches. while the film took over 10 years to complete, and ended up costing $17million dollars, its audience was limited, and the film has been screened infrequently up until its re-release last year by drafthouse cinema. now the film, intended initially for a wider audience that didn’t exist, is seen in art houses, festivals, galleries and museums. the laughter throughout, the sort of shock permeating throughout the audience is at odds with the film’s intended tone.
filmmakers have no control over what audience experiences their work or how it is perceived by said audience. i love the factors that go into the shared viewing experience, which is part of why public screenings are so important. i feel like the witch and roar are two differing examples of the layered ways in which a film can reach an audience and how it can resonate with a group of people.
if you know of any under the radar screenings that are going on, please get in touch. lets set up a series of screenings in your garage and invite the neighbors. maybe you’ll inspire someone to say “i could do that”.