I recently had the pleasure and privilege of catching The Witch with some dear friends in the theater. Obviously, there was a great deal of excitement built up for the film because of its rousing reviews, intriguing treatment, and impressive acting from its youth. There were two sides of the fence on this film. One, it's the scariest horror movie of the decade. Two, it's not really a horror film. The truth from my perspective falls more so on the side of the latter than the former.
I am to the point in my horror-reviewing experiences that I can no longer be offended or outraged when a film fails to meet the standards set by it from a select few that have seen it before its release. The number of films claiming to be the "scariest" of the year/decade/century increases exponentially every year. It is no longer a travesty to see these claims, it's simply a reality of this business. Not only is the subjectivity of the scariest film as broad as the Pacific Ocean, the word-of-mouth marketing of any film can't always be dismissed as what it is at its core; marketing. Therefore, I am not holding these standards set by the movie-going public against the film, but to an extent it must be minorly compared.
The witch's brew stews slowly at a crawling simmer. The inevitable doom that awaits the cast is present, but never brash. In many ways, The Witch reminds me of Valhalla Rising in the subtlety and obscurity of its approach towards the evil force and the generally similar plotline of a group approaching a new land with a mysterious evil. Of course, Valhalla Rising is much more obscure and psychadelic in its approach, which hurts its connection with the audience, whereas The Witch excels at keeping itself grounded and thereby the audience retains its attention.
The Witch delivers in the realm of horror, which I believe is hard to deny, but its payoffs are rarely definitively frightening, and the gems of the film lie in its acting and cinematography rather than the horror elements. There isn't anything wrong with this, but to declare it the scariest film in a decade appears to me to be a massive exaggeration. There is a significant amount of tension built in the film via fantastic directing and a cast of youth that delivered perfectly in their roles. However, this tension doesn't deliver on its boiling points in most scenes. Instead you get material that would better classify as rigid, edgy, disturbing drama.
Throughout the film I am waiting to see these turning points in the story culminate in a climactic moment. Even in these scenes, which do eventually culminate, the director's use of distanced, obscure, and implied horror do not waiver. We do see the definitive results of horrific tragedy on the characters, but it never truly breaches "unsettling" into the realm of fear and dread. You can see the family suffering this fear viscerally, yet its impact on you as a viewer is still somehow separate. And perhaps this is where the subjectivity of fear comes into it. I was unable to connect with the horror presented in this arthouse/period drama shell, while still appreciating its approach as effective. A balance I have perhaps never felt this strongly before.
Maybe there is a level of desensitization that comes with the frequency of my horror viewing, that to appreciate the subtlety of this film to the point of poignant efficacy is an unfair standard for me to hold on the film or vice-versa. I'd hate to demean myself by bringing it into a matter of maturity or sensibility, but there is something to the old-school style of this film and its determination to stick in its nook through the film's entirety that I can't fully embrace as a horror critic, but I can more than appreciate as a film critic. I suppose that's why I came up with the below Horror Critique System the way that I did. Sometimes there is a distinct separation between the two, even in the horror genre. So see The Witch, draw your own conclusions, but I would imagine that the majority of horror fans will walk the balance beams on the fence like me, rather than dive head first onto either side. But I could be wrong. I could be just as blind to real witch in this scenario being me.