After 12 year old Finn (Charlie Tacker) is caught by his mother abusing his computer privileges, absent father Simon (Alex Draper) intervenes with a summer activity: a renovation project in rural Vermont, “flipping” a run-down house.
Writer/director Andy Mitton’s third feature dedicates a substantial part of its runtime not to the mysterious presence that gives the film its title, but rather to the relationship between father and son. It’s clear from the dialogue and the room that Simon has set up for Finn that the pair haven’t spent a great deal of time together; Beverly (Arija Bareikis) chastises Simon for not knowing their son and the room is decorated with toys fit for a younger child.
The dialogue is honest and candid: these are two individuals who are tentatively rebuilding their relationship. Tacker, in particular, is great. He imbues Finn with an innocent, naivety about the world, but isn’t afraid to accuse his father of bullshit when he tries to lie to Finn. It’s a startlingly realistic portrait of a child on the cusp of adulthood.
Mitton and cinematographer Justin Kane pack the film, filmed on location in NY and Vermont, with rich, warm earth tones. The gold, yellow and vibrant green colour palette reinforces The Witch In The Window‘s thematic interests in renewal, reflected in the both the attempt to reconcile the family unit, as well as the physical restoration of the house.
Naturally — since this is technically a horror film — the witch must intrude in their domestic efforts. Local electrician Louis (Greg Naughton) recounts the tale of Lydia (Carol Stanzione), the titular witch and former occupant of the home, describing her as a woman who delighted in scaring the locals and keeping to herself (so much so that her body sat untouched in plain sight in window for four weeks before anyone realized that she was dead).
As father and son work on the repairs, the witch makes her presence known — slowly at first and then eventually as a full blown threat. Louis warns Simon that each repair makes the dead woman stronger, but Simon has no choice except to continue the work: he has ill-advisedly invested his savings (and his hopes for reconciling with Beverly) into the property. After a particularly harrowing encounter with Lydia, Simon reluctantly puts Finn on a bus home, promising to only work during the day and stay out of the house at night.
This proves easier said than done.
As The Witch In The Windows progresses, the line between Simon’s reality and Lydia’s fantasy begin to dissolve. Mitton doesn’t alter the visual aesthetic for the supernatural scenes so these are difficult to distinguish until after the fact, but this actually makes them more startling and effective. The film clearly isn’t working with a huge budget, so there are no special effects to speak of, but Mitton finds creative solutions to his financial limitations. One sequence late in the film when Simon repeatedly attempts to escape from the house still manages to raise the hairs on your arm, despite its simplicity, because it is clever and well-shot. The witch makeup is similarly understated — the green/grey hues clearly evoke dead flesh — though it is more effective when glimpsed briefly in passing.
One potentially divisive aspect of the film is the ending, which eschews an action-packed climax for something introspective, emotional and character-based. The finale perfectly suits the film, relying once again on performance and family drama, but may not resonate with audiences seeking a more conventional wrap-up. The Witch In The Window is a deliberately slow-paced, quietly sorrowful film about a man trying to reconnect with his family. By prioritizing character development, Mitton has crafted an emotionally rich film that, while not explicitly horror, still has the capacity to chill.
The Witch In The Window is screening at Grimmfest 2018 before it becomes available in North America on Shudder