Sorry Black Phillip, But Expectations Matter

By  · Published on February 22nd, 2016


For the past few months, I’ve done my best to write about ideas related to cinephilia and topics of debate among film critics and audiences. To the extent that I’ve succeeded, it has been because of my own fracturing of interests when it comes to film culture. While I do write reviews and hold interviews with filmmakers, it isn’t a regular part of my freelance workload, and I very rarely participate in film festivals or advance screenings. I also have very few friends outside of my professional network who approach film as anything other than entertainment or diversion; not including my coursework, I can count on one hand the number of times a year I see a film with someone who writes about movies either professionally or for fun. This gives me something of an odd perspective of movies. When appropriate, I can approach a film as a critic, as an academic, or as an average moviegoer, and a disproportionate amount of my online energy is expending making sure that those three audiences have a common ground for discussion.

And when it comes to critics telling audiences that advance hype doesn’t matter, I am telling you from the bottom of my critic-scholar-everyman heart that you are full of shit.

This past week, as they are wont to do, audiences and critics butted heads over the reception of a new movie. This time the film in question was The Witch, the puritanical horror film-slash-fantasy by first time feature writer-director Robert Eggers. The Witch took home the ‘best directing’ prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and has been a hotly anticipated release by both film critics and audiences ever since; the hype only amplified in volume after the film won a jury prize at that year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, with mainstream and genre critics alike treating the film’s success as 2016’s The Babadook or It Follows as a foregone conclusion. On Thursday, the first night that The Witch was available for most wide release audiences, many critics checked social media and Cinemascore to see if how well people were taking to the film. Instead, they were shocked (or unsurprised, depending on their disposition) to see many people cursing the film as overhyped, with many genre fans even going so far as to say it shouldn’t really be considered a horror film.

Naturally, the discussion got heated, and many people weighed in on Twitter with their own opinion on audience hype. Perhaps the best piece on the debate was an article written by Jason Coffman – who, full disclosure, I have collaborated with at the genre website DailyGrindhouse. It’s a wonderful examination of the way that some horror fans close their ranks to anything that doesn’t fit their idea of the mold; it also includes a more general argument for genre hybridity and the evolution-tinged assertion that new sources of inspiration will lead to healthier and more robust projects. If there is any part of the article that gives me pause, it is that Jason repeats the common assertion that audiences alone are responsible for letting heightened expectations affect the way they approach a new movie. It’s an idea repeated throughout the weekend by many film critics: if the audience feels the film was overhyped, then that’s their problem, not ours.

And I just don’t buy it. Never have, never will. I’ve written before about the definite psychological effect that comes from participating with a like-minded crowd – the way in which a film festival can influence our appreciation of a film – and the more time I spend looking at festivals and public releases, the more I’ve come to question the idea that audience members should be frowned upon for not going into movies as a blank slate. When critics who wrote glowing reviews of a movie groan about audiences’ inability to approach a movie with fresh eyes, they seem to be issuing a strange mismatch of affirmation and rejection to their own place in the hype cycle. If you agree with them – if you appreciate the film to the same degree that they did – then you are right to do so; if you dislike it, then you are at fault for letting a film’s hype get in the way of your viewing. In this manner, both film and critic are exonerated from blame. Only the audience – invariably casual – is to be held accountable for their opinion.

On the flipside, these arguments also wrongly presuppose that film critics happen across festival films without any influence from publicists or producers. Although I have no interest in making films myself, I am endlessly fascinated by the filmmaking process, and am lucky enough to take several classes on film production and publicity as part of my graduate program. As a result, I have set in rooms on multiple occasions and listened to independent film producers discuss situations where it might make sense to release movies without much fanfare, allowing film critics the chance to quote-unquote “discover” the films on their own and take a sense of ownership over a film’s success. A great deal of energy is put into when and where a film should be released relative to its place on the hype cycle, and a smart publicist or producer will know exactly when to strike to maximize its effect. It’s a social science as much as it is an art. We as film critics might like to think we’re above the process, but we aren’t, and haven’t been for over a century.

The best critics – and we should be grateful to have so many of these working today – find a way to bring out the many flavors of the film while properly preparing audiences for the type of movie that they are about to see. My own feelings on the film might be considerably more mixed (“Yes, it’s a horror film; why are we praising The Witch for historical accuracy when we despise that in The Revenant?”), but I have still found plenty of great articles that discuss the film’s religious overtones and the part it plays in America’s puritanical history. If you’ve spent any time engaging with me on social media, though, you know that I view film criticism as a living thing, and rarely want the conversation to end with the last line of the review. If someone complains to you about a film, that should be the beginning of a conversation that has them excited for the next movie down the line; imagine how many potential fans of The Witch were lost because we told them to shut the hell up after they described The Babadook as overhyped?

Let’s be clear here: I’m not arguing whether it is fair or not for a film to be judged harshly based on external factors upon its release. It isn’t, but it is part of how contemporary audiences evaluate the movies they see, and arguing otherwise is just a confusing attempt to hedge your bets. And when you pour your heart into a nuanced and thoughtful review of a film, it can certainly be frustrating to have audiences come back and say that you overhyped the film; but if it’s not our job to engage in those types of discussions and try and provide the proper context for audiences to appreciate the film, then whose is it, exactly? I’d much rather change one person’s mind about a movie I loved than have a hundred people echo their shared appreciation. Here’s hoping we learn how to have that conversation before the next movie like The Witch has to awkwardly watch from the sidelines as we struggle to communicate.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)