By: Nolan McBride
The Witch In The Window plays at 7:00 PM on Saturday, September 8 as part of the Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival. To purchase tickets or badges, or to find more details about the festival, visit: unnamedfilmfestival.com.
The Witch In The Window cast its spell upon me almost immediately. Though it plays in familiar territory — (part of) a family is (temporarily) living in a new house rumored to be haunted by a former inhabitant — it distinguishes itself thanks in large part to the strength of its core relationship and emotional arc. Rather than diminishing returns, it provided a breath of fresh air, similar to that experienced by the characters as they venture away from the troubles of the fraught modern world.
After a brief introduction to the situation, we’re on the road to Vermont with an estranged father and son, Simon (Alex Draper) and Finn (Charlie Tacker), in order to fix up a house that Simon is supposedly flipping. The movie’s enchanting score — by Andy Mitton, who wears many hats on the film, as director, writer, producer, editor, and composer — quickly whisked me away from the city to the countryside along with them. Finn is taking this trip with his father at his mother’s insistence following an incident involving internet browsing, the details of which aren’t revealed until almost halfway through the film.
Running a brisk 77 minutes, the movie is paced deliberately, though it never struck me as slow. Instead, Mitton is telling a small and intimate story that he allows to breathe. Mitton and cinematographer Justin Kane give the movie texture — getting you familiar with the house, lingering on the empty rooms, the pattern of the walls, and the picturesque nature surrounding the isolated home. It’s quite beautiful.
The movie is partly concerned with lying and lies, and how people tell lies to protect others in their lives from knowledge that may hurt them — especially parents to their children. The narrative unfolds in accordance with this idea, peeling away layers as it gets closer to the scary truth. This doesn’t refer solely to the mystery surrounding the titular witch, but also the development of the characters. However, Mitton chooses not to reveal everything about his characters. Even some information that seems crucial to their backstories is never fully fleshed out, instead leaving these blanks for the audience to fill in on their own.
Speaking of which, the relationship between Simon and Finn is primarily strained because — for reasons that are hinted at but not completely explained — Simon doesn’t live with Finn or his wife. This trip occurs as Finn is on the cusp of becoming a teenager and, beyond allowing the two to reconnect, it provides Simon with the chance to help Finn understand the world as it really is, not just as he’s previously been told. There’s a frankness that anchors their relationship and their banter. However, even as he makes strides to be open with Finn, Simon (like Mitton) still withholds information. It’s a fine line to walk, but the movie walks it well. We get just enough information to infer the rest of the family’s history.
Alex Draper’s performance is the bedrock of the film, playing Simon as both father and friend to Finn. At times he’s very hands-off, giving Finn space because he recognizes that he has to earn Finn’s trust again; other times he’s reassuring, letting Finn know that if the twelve-year-old is acting tougher than he feels, he is still there to take care of him. Draper gives Simon vulnerability, a wry sense of humor, and an earnestness that endeared him to me greatly. Though Finn’s journey is important, the movie belongs to Simon. His struggle to fix the broken relationships in his life, as well as come to terms with why they broke in the first place, is at the heart of the character’s motivations, driving the narrative in ways unseen initially.
Though the character drama was the highlight for me, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the movie’s horror chops. Without revealing too much, the witch (Carol Stanzione) has a very particular method of haunting, which isn’t entirely new, but which got under my skin in ways I didn’t expect. There’s one scene that chilled me to the bone, making my skin crawl while hoping that the character being antagonized would bolt from the situation at unimaginable speeds. That the scare follows a heavy emotional beat only serves to highlight the mastery with which Mitton exerts over the production. It’s carefully crafted and to great effect.
If I had to compare The Witch In The Window to another movie, it would be We Are Still Here. Not necessarily in terms of its beats, but in the way it balances its character drama with a slow burn of dread and jarring frights. It’s a great horror movie featuring what might end up being one of my favorite performances of the year. Andy Mitton may not have been on my radar prior to seeing this, but now he’s got my full attention and I hope to see more from him in the future.