Since I was not at all impressed with It Follows, I was eager to take a chance on a film that made practically every "Best Horror of 2016" list, so I watched The Witch. In a word, wow! Even though I thought it was a bit of a stretch to classify it as horror or to suggest that it was even mildly scary, it managed to be one of the better films in any genre I've seen in quite awhile. But how can a horror film that wasn't scary be any good? Great acting, amazing set, creepy atmosphere, and one of the most unsettling scores I can recall certainly helped. But what put it over the edge was how original the entire concept seemed compared to most of the crap coming out these days. Scary or not, it was just a damn good flick.
Contrary to what I was expecting, the film does not center on the witch trials. They are part of the context, and witch hysteria is relevant here; however, this is not one of those films where the centerpiece of the story is a trial interspersed with flashbacks. Instead, it deals with a family of devoutly religious Puritans coping with unimaginable hardship and a rapidly deteriorating conflict while their "god" is as uninvolved as ever. Most of all, it shows the terror with which the early Puritans regarded witches. I found it a powerful reminder that many people used to sincerely believe in witches (unfortunately, some still do).
The Witch is not going to be for everyone, and this has to be stressed because opinions on this film are going to be quite polarized. I am convinced that one's enjoyment of this film will be determined in large part by the expectations with which one approaches it. This is a period piece set in Puritan New England in the 1700s, and the dialogue reflects this. Some will not have the patience for this. The film was also very slow moving, and I can see why some would experience it as boring. Although things ramp up slightly near the end, there is no massive "it was worth the wait" type of payoff. In fact, I found the end to be somewhat disappointing and wished they had gone another way. The "horror" experienced will likely depend on one's ability to suspend disbelief and identify with the family. Had I not allowed myself to get sucked into the story, I don't think I would have had the patience to sit through the whole thing.
I should also point out that filmmakers committed two of the "sins" that almost always make me despise a movie: (1) many scenes are set in near darkness, making it hard to see what is happening, and (2) extremely uneven audio volume where either the dialogue or the sound effects are at the right volume but not both. I found that the optimal solution was to watch it in a dark room with a good surround sound system at high volume. I admit I was initially frustrated until I went that route. The soundtrack is great, but it needs to be loud.
If you are looking for scares or traditional horror, look elsewhere. The Witch managed to be unsettling, creepy, and somewhat disturbing but never approached scary. I think it probably makes sense to think of it as a period folk tale rather than a horror film. The acting was certainly several steps above what I've seen in any recent horror film. My guess is that viewers who go into it expecting anything like a traditional horror film will be disappointed. Expect something more of a creepy fairy tale and you might find it worth a watch.
All criticisms aside, I have to say that this was one of those rare films that transported me to another place and time. I found it easy to care about the characters and lose myself in their struggle. I'll definitely watch The Witch again; I think it might take 2-3 viewings for me to catch everything I missed the first time. According to comments the director made during a Q&A session included on the disc, this was a feminist film (a description of which he said he was proud for some reason). I suppose I really must be quite fond of so-called feminist films.