Written and Directed by: Andy Mitton
Starring: Alex Draper, Charlie Tacker, and Carol Stanzione
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Do you think there's something wrong with the house?"
As a title, something like The Witch in the Window sounds like a waypoint between a ghost story and a fairy tale, and Andy Mitton’s solo feature debut indeed splits the difference in that regard. At once haunting, evocative, and unexpectedly moving, it imagines a different sort of haunted house story, one that ultimately finds some measure of comfort and solace in souls that linger on from the beyond. During the course of its scant 77-minute runtime, The Witch in the Window explores the stuff of both childhood nightmares to adult anxieties, taking stock of how both must intertwine for one generation to understand the other.
Division and strife define this tale from the outset, as a beleaguered mother (Arija Bareikis) must confront that her 12-year-old son Finn (Charlie Tacker) is growing up, and with that comes exploring the seedier corners of the internet. After his latest online transgression, her only recourse is to ship the boy off with his estranged father Simon (Alex Draper), a well-meaning but distant man who lives a few states away in rural Vermont. His latest project involves flipping an old country house, and he hopes to bond with his son as they toil away to fix the place up. Unfortunately, it can’t even boast an auspicious start: not only is Finn simply not having it with this shit, but a visit from the local electrician (Greg Naughton) casts a pall on the entire project.
Obviously spooked from the minute he steps foot near the place, he relays the house’s chilling, sordid history to the father and son. A lifelong local, he remembers when this was that house: the one kids were afraid to even look at. Home to an old woman named Lydia (Carol Stanzione) who may or may not have been an actual witch who killed her family, this idyllic dream house has stood empty for years, haunting those who dare to cross its paths. Locals, including this terrified electrician, insist that Lydia’s spirit never departed the house, a notion that obviously puts a damper on Simon’s plans to bond with his son.
Mitton takes this premise to both expected and unexpected places. He mines it for its obvious horror potential, as the film is stuffed with an assortment of shots with Lydia lurking subtly in the background of a frame. Some—including her first appearance—are so subtle that you’ll feel compelled to rewind just to be sure you saw it. Such fleeting but unnerving shots are very much my thing, so this tale is immediately gripping. What’s more, it doesn’t lose any of its power when Mitton dwells more heavily on Lydia’s presence: Mitton doesn’t bother with an ambiguous approach, as he eventually confirms that the spirit haunting the house is very much real and has a clear agenda. Stanzione cuts a striking figure when Mitton leans on her to unnerve both her new tenants and the audience. There’s something immediately haunting about her sadness: she might be introduced as the titular witch, yet something melancholy hangs on her face and in her eyes. It’s especially telling that she’s the rare spirit intoning her visitors to stay instead of leave.
That turn is the first of a few unexpected directions Mitton takes. You expect a film boasting this title to trot out the usual haunted house parlor tricks: the unexplained noises, strange images, shrieking spirits. Less expected, however, is a director carving a sweet little hangout film out of this material. It turns out that this is a perfect opportunity for Simon and Finn to bond after all, as the two come to a mutual understanding about each other’s flaws and shortcomings. Simon—who initially laments that he’s catching his son on the 13-year-old side of 12—learns that maybe his son still is an innocent kid in some respects; likewise, Finn recognizes that his dad—for all his aloofness—is trying his best after all, especially when it comes to preserving that innocence.
That struggle takes center stage during one particularly poignant stretch of the film. At times, Mitton’s dialogue tends to be a little too precious and on the nose in terms of communicating his themes, but Draper and Tacker’s tremendously convincing chemistry blunts those sharp edges a bit. It would be fair to call The Witch in the Window a coming-of-age story that just happens to feature horror elements, sort of like Lady in White. Mitton eventually foregrounds the latter, taking time to let these two hash out their differences and recognize that there’s a lot more at stake here than just fixing up a haunted house. One of the film’s crucial moments is a conversation between father and son where the former realizes the latter’s recent online transgressions aren’t at all what he (and the audience) assumed. Simon is aghast that his sweet child has already confronted so much ugliness in the world and becomes even more desperate to protect him—not just from Lydia but from the horrors of growing up.
Of course, that does naturally mean he’s insistent on putting Finn on the first bus out of town once Lydia becomes too malicious. Mitton’s final turn hinges on this decision, which paradoxically inspires both the most chilling and comforting moments the film has to offer. It’s a tricky turn at that, as the story pivots from bone-chilling revelations to Simon’s bizarrely soothing final fate. Schmaltziness threatens to overwhelm the film here, but Mitton carefully pulls back from the brink: The Witch in the Window is sweet without being saccharine, and sensitive but not melodramatic. In many ways, it’s a coming-of-age tale for Simon, who realizes his cool dad trying to hold down his shambolic life with wit, pizza, and promises isn’t enough.
He learns that parenthood is an enormous, frightening responsibility, a notion that resonates with me more now than it ever has. Spending my first year as a parent has been jolting, humbling, and terrifying: at all times, you carry with you the realization that you’re responsible for everything your child needs, from safety to comfort. The Witch in the Window is a stark reminder that list will one day include preserving his innocence, even if that battle is fated to be lost. You can’t keep the world at bay forever, whether it arrives in the form of ghoulish Youtube videos or a witch in a haunted house; you can, however, do your best to try, as Simon does. In many ways, The Witch in the Window is about how the scary stories we tell as children eventually become the very real horrors we’re forced to shield our own children from—even if it means becoming a part of that story in order write a happy ending.
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