Starring Alex Draper, Charlie Tacker, Arija Barekis
Written by Andy Mitton
Directed by Andy Mitton
Reviewed at Fantasia 2018
The Witch In The Window sounds like a haunted house movie, and it is. Andy Mitton’s third feature film opens upon a watercolor painting of a quaint lakeside house as divorced couple Simon (Alex Draper) and Beverly (Arija Bareikis) discuss their twelve-year-old son Finn’s (Charlie Tacker) particulars as consistent screwup Simon gets ready to spend an extended amount of time with the boy. Cultural underpinnings are front and center in the opening sequence; the boy’s mother expresses exasperation at everything going on in the nation and the world at large. The bottom line: “I’m just trying to keep him safe, and I am all alone in this….you tell me what I’m supposed to say to a little boy.” Meanwhile, young Finn fondles a small hourglass. Time is running out.
After an apparently catastrophic incident involving his phone, Simon has been sent to the countryside with his father, where they’ll stay at yet another fixer-upper that Simon plans to flip for a profit. For his part, Simon is doing his best to make the most out of the trip. He wishes for his son to retain his innocence: “I guess I wish I had caught you on the twelve side of twelve, instead of the thirteen side of twelve.”
Indeed, the boy is wise beyond his years, using the analogy of a poorly-locked door leading to limitless knowledge to justify his yet-unnamed transgression. The blunt pre-teen further demonstrates his untamed curiosity by immediately probing every nook and cranny of his father’s new lakeside home (that bears an uncanny resemblance to the painting from the opening scene), asking if anyone had been murdered there. But ultimately, he’s still a child, one who has to ask what “disclose” means, what house flipping entails. Convincing child actors are few and far in between, but Charlie Tacker is one of the good ones, with a matter-of-fact delivery of the kind of backtalk that would’ve earned me the most vigorous of soapy mouth rinses had I ever spoken that way to my parents. Likewise, Tacker’s precocious performance is complemented by that of Alex Draper; he desperately attempts to be the grownup, the bearing wall that supports his son’s load as well as his own. Simon’s child’s pure outlook is devastating in its relatability.
It’s in the course of the grand tour of the lakehouse that Finn begins to hear footsteps and rap-tap-tapping within the walls. A disquieting chat with a neighbor (Greg Naughton) reveals that a cruel, cruel woman, Lady Lydia, once lived— and died— in the home. Lydia is the titled Witch, and her spectral appearance in a window five minutes into the film is the only instance of on-the-nose folly to be found in the lean 77 minute runtime.
Following in the tiptoes of Silent House, Hellraiser, and nearly every haunted house movie ever, the state of disrepair in the residence reflects the inner turmoil of its central player. The skylight leaks rainwater, rotting the wood of the ceiling. The pipework is shoddy, the wiring ancient. A nearby stable serves as a loose memory of a time gone by; it’s covered in cobwebs but reminds Simon that Beverly loved horses. Simon has furnished Finn’s room with items from storage to make him feel more at home, but the toys and stuffed animals are from years ago, when Finn wasn’t too old to play with action figures. Simon sees and idealizes a time more pure and wholesome, before the divorce, before the Lost Boy left Neverland and grew up.
In fact, the slippage of time is steeped heavily into the film’s narrative. A cracked window corner prompts Simon to say, “We’re the house doctors, you and me. Get in there, make the bad parts look good…turn this into some place someone would want to live.” The subtext is spackled on just thick enough to become text: if eyes are windows to the soul and the house reflects the core, then the homestead provides a soft but pervasive metaphor for Simon’s appraisal of his family as a broken one that needs repair.
The film is a masterstroke of technical discipline, confident enough in its story to gently let craft serve rather than overpower it with stylization. A subtle waltz of framing and blocking often positions Finn waiting in the background as his father is foregrounded, trying to repair everything in sight. Slow zooms of windows and doors constantly permeate the screen, and while the movie employs the time-honored haunted house trope of flickering lights from time to time, the most visually arresting moments take place in a heavenly natural light. This is more Oz Perkins than James Wan in its ambiance.
This is a horror story told in hushed tones, the brooding lovechild of Edgar Allen Poe and Peter Straub. It shares tonal similarities with The Woman In Black and Lady In White, albeit with a less in-your-face approach to villainess exposure. Mitton makes the solid choice to let the witch quietly inhabit the periphery of the scene, only being available for a quick glimpse or a sustained lurk in the background. Lydia is, like most threats to life as we know it, ever-present and right in front of the story’s central players, despite all efforts to shield the innocent. Mitton doesn’t resort to the cheap jump scare gimmick for reveals of his baddie. Here, the jump scare is sparse and, when done at all, employed to great effect. This is due in part to Dan Brennan and Jack Garrett’s fantastic sound design making a domestic orchestra of footfalls, bumps in the night, and whispered horrors.
A character says, of seeing the witch in his childhood, “What really scared me was seein’ how scared my mom was. Now that I’ve got a kid of my own, I get it. She knew something that bad was that close, and she couldn’t keep me safe.” The Witch In The Window taps deep into parental fears about keeping our loved ones safe in the face of everything horrible that’s happening in the world. Its quiet, unassuming menace stays with you long after the end, does just as Lady Lydia does.
This is a horror story told in hushed tones, the brooding lovechild of Edgar Allen Poe and Peter Straub.