Fantasia International Film Fest 2018: Andy Mitton’s “The Witch in the Window” is a satisfyingly spine-tingling ghost story that delivers more than scares.
In a strange coincidence, on the day that I screened THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW, I had gone to look at a house in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. The house is up for auction, and my wife and I were contemplating buying it as a fixer-upper. When I arrived at the house, I was quickly greeted by one of the neighbors who filled me in on stories about the house that the realtor hadn’t mentioned.
The house has a past that includes murder and child torture. The neighbor said that the house was “bad” and hoped that no one would live there again. He then — and I swear this is true — started to tell me a story of a witch who used to live in the woods behind the property. He ended the witch story by saying he never believed in that stuff, even when he was a kid.
It’s in that state of mind that I sat down to watch THE WITCH IN THE WOODS. If that’s not being primed for a haunted house/witch movie, I don’t know what is.
Simon (Alex Draper) is a divorced, absentee dad. But, after his 12-year old son Finn (Charlie Tacker) finds himself getting in trouble on the Internet, Simon agrees to take him for a summer away from his mother, Beverly (Arija Bareikis). Beverly is at her wit’s end raising Finn by herself. After he gets into trouble for his activity online, she realizes Finn needs some time away, and Simon needs to reconnect with his son.
Finn is taken to a house in Vermont that Simon has bought on-the-cheap, with the hopes of restoring the house and flipping it. Like Simon, the house is full of secrets that reveal themselves over time. Simon’s secrets are revealed to Finn, and the house reveals itself to the father and son as they restore it as well as their relationship.
Simon and Finn soon learn that the house is the center of a local legend. It was owned by an alleged witch named Lydia who had, years earlier, lost her husband and son to a tragic accident on the property. Lydia stayed in her house and remained a recluse until she died in her chair at a window overlooking her property.
As Simon begins the restoration of the house with his reluctant son, strange things begin to occur. Is it just the odd quirkiness of an old house, or has Lydia returned to protect her home from intruders?
What stands out about THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW is that it respects the audience enough to catch on to the subtle — but building to a crescendo — horror of the story.
A less assured director may have announced each appearance of a ghostly figure with a loud and sudden blast of scary music, or gone to a close-up to something the director wants to make sure the audience sees. Writer/Director Andy Mitton (YELLOWBRICKROAD, WE GO ON) does not do this. He trusts his audience to make the needed connections without having their proverbial hand held to a scare.
With a title like THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW, much of the usual jump-scare stereotypes are not necessary. The audience knows there’s a witch, that the witch will probably be seen in the window, and that the witch is likely some kind of apparition. As horror fans, we’re programmed to start looking for the coming scares in the windows, the mirrors, the dusty corners, etc.
Mitton plays on those expectations to build a sense of impending dread. When he finally gets to the big scares, the audience is perfectly set up to literally jump out of their chairs, as I did more than a few times.
What Mitton does best, however, is establish a father-and-son relationship between Simon and Finn that is believable and full of emotion. There is a conversation that Simon and Finn have about lies, and specifically the lies that Simon has told to Finn and himself that is truly heartbreaking. It’s hard to make an absentee father likable, but actor Alex Draper’s performance brings a deep sense of sadness and empathy to Simon.
Much like James Wan, Andy Mitton focuses as much on family interpersonal drama as he does supernatural forces at play that push at the fabric of the familial bonds. And, like Wan, it’s his focus on creating full and complicated characters along with an excellent cast that create truly terrifying scares.
Buoyed by superb performances from Alex Draper and Charlie Tacker, THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW deserves to be mentioned among recent horror hits like THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS, and is one of the top horror movies of 2018.
THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW will scare you, but will also move you to tears.