I am one of the people Anthony Lane describes in his New Yorker review of The Witch, one of the "viewers who grew up with the 'Scream' franchise, or with the toothless array of 'Saw' films," who Lane assumes "will doubtless fidget and sigh" at the film's "ambivalence" regarding the relationship between reality and imagination in the film, who will "rightly wonder" whether the film can be called a horror flick.
It's hard not to take Lane's assumption here as a subtle bit of condescension, an effort to claim that dread, a feeling The Witch attempts to promote in spades (and chicken fetuses, and blood milk.), is some how more scary than the kind of horror pushed by the Screams and Saws of the world, which the hoi polloi millennial children eat up like so many cat memes. Scream is cheap horror, and therefore a "flick," while The Witch is sophisticated horror, and therefore a "film." The brief equation is dread > jumps. You have to use your thinkin' parts to get The Witch, which deepens the horror.
I take the admittedly annoying relativist position here and say the Scream movies, for example, which are pretty rich in terms of the number of cultural references they fold into their teenage nightmare world, are just as worthy of being called horror films as The Witch is. The only problem is that The Witch wants to be jump-out-and-scare-ya scary in addition to being dreadful-scary, but it's not.
A big structural device that director Robert Eggers uses to try to scare the audience in this film is the three-second blackout transition. Eggers uses these blackouts to break up the pacing of the narrative, to make the world seem disjunctive and strange—basically to keep the audience on their toes. But the blackouts only do what the bog-thick north English accents do: make the movie impossible to enter. I felt too much outside of the movie's world to be afraid the horrors within it.
Whenever Eggers does want to trigger an instance of limbic-system-type-horror, he uses the same trick every time. Here's how the dialogue between me and the movie's moments of horror often went:
Me: Wait...is that...is that like a weird goat?
The Movie: *Slow Zoom-In*
Me: Oh no, it's like a....the back of an old woman, and she's eating something?
The Movie: *Slow Zoom-In*
Me: Oh, okay, that's a witch doing something weird.
The Movie: *REVEAL WITCH WITH SCARY TEETH AND SOME BLOOD DRIPPING*
Me: Yep, classic witch.
I'll admit that there were moments of unsettling imagery—the raven nipping at mama Katherine's breast, for instance—but these "menacing" images evoked ancient, literary, art-history-type notions of Hell. They felt Greek, Biblical, learned. None of that is scary, but because those images often followed a blackout transition, it was clear to me that Eggers wanted the audience to perceive them as scary. It reminds me of a line from David Berman's poem, Self-Portrait at 28: "If you laugh out loud at Shakespeare's jokes/ I hope you won't be insulted/ if I say you're trying too hard." If Lane really is scared of a witch sucking at a goat's udder or a raven nipping at a nipple, then I hope he won't be insulted...
In his review, Lane elaborates on this type of "menacing," scariness in the film:
More important, there is no silliness to undercut the menace—nothing to let you off the hook of having to think about these folk, about the leathery toughness of their existence, and about the load that their souls are forced to bear. You believe in their belief.
No silliness? The Witch features a goat named Black Phillip who we come to find out is possessed by the devil. A goat. I get that it's the end-times goat, but what was always funny about the end-times goat is that it was A GOAT. I know goats are not to be fucked with. But early in the movie William handily grabs the black goat by its horns and escorts it safely into the pen. Later it becomes William's killer and Thomison's seducer? Alright, I'm sorry, but my silly sirens go off when a goat is posited as genuine physical threat and a vessel for the dark lord. There was also the list of melodramatic stuff that wasn't supposed to be silly but ended up being silly as a result of gratuitous repetition: a bunny perpetually chewing something, the incestuous lustiness of the boy, the endless shots of spoooooky woods.
But more on that goat: In your truly wonderful and thoughtful review, you describe goat pupils as "empirically fucked." But goats only look empirically drunk to me. And perhaps this is what it all boils down to. Scariness is personal. If what's so scary about this movie, as Lane implies, is how deeply The Witch's Puritans bought into their religion, how real the concept of Hell was for them as a result of their belief—so real that the imagined can kill in the land of the real (Freddy Krueger style)—then I'm just never going to have access to that fright. I was raised a Jehovah's Witness by a Jewish mother, so my conception of Hell was more earthbound. Humans were the real monsters. But the JWs did think Satan had a real-life influence, that Satan did possess. I was just never fully able to buy into that notion. I was always more afraid of mom's metal spatula than Satan's minions made flesh. All that stuff seemed like smoke and mirrors to me.