Playing September 8th at the Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival (aka PUFF), The Witch in the Window has gotten quite a lot of hype, with some calling it one of the best horror films of the year. In a genre largely populated by ghost stories as of late, does Witch in the Window live up to the hype?...
…Short answer: Not quite. Written/directed by Andy Mitton (Yellow Brick Road), The Witch in the Window stars Alex Draper as Simon, an unavailable father who tries to reconnect with his son, Finn (Charlie Tacker) by spending the weekend with him at a house that he plans on flipping for profit. Father and son soon discover that the house has a dark history, with a spirit that has its own intentions for the weekend.
Mitton is a severely underrated director with a unique perspective on story. If you’ve seen Yellow Brick Road or We Go On, then you know what I’m referring to. Mitton tells stories that feel familiar, but also aren’t quite what you would expect. The Witch in the Window is no different. This odd little ghost story is a deeply personal film with more of a focus on the ghosts of our memories than the actual threat which haunts the house, the spirit of a witch known as Lydia (Carol Stanzione). By using the ghost of Lydia as a backdrop for a sad, emotional study of a divorced father desperately trying to get his family back, The Witch in the Window defies expectations and I suspect is unlike most horror films you will see this year.
As a child of divorce, I have a connection to the film which not everyone would understand (and they’re better off for it). My parents also divorced when I was around Finn’s age, my dad was also the one to move out, and for a while, he struggled with it in much the same way that Simon does. Divorce is never easy, and I imagine its particularly hard for the parent who no longer lives with their kids. In this way, the characters of Simon and Finn are fascinating. Draper brings the pain as a father who wants nothing more than to be with his family again, and Tacker has a surprisingly charming vulnerability as a kid that initially seems like every angsty teenage dickhead, but ultimately turns out to be the strong voice of reason between the two.
But there is a problem with the characters and isn’t because of the actors, it’s Mitton’s dialogue. Plenty of fans appreciate intelligent horror with a message, but there is a difference between subtle storytelling and shoving ideas down the audience’s throats like we’re a pack of dogs being forced to ingest emotional horse tranquilizers. So much of the dialogue falls somewhere between stiff and completely unrealistic in an effort to hammer home the themes which Mitton is toying with. It’s hard to imagine any father having just seen a ghost with his son telling the boy that he lies to him by saying that he’s safe in order to protect him, because he’s never actually safe. Melodramatic much, dad? Sure, it makes for a creepy line, and injects fear into Finn and the audience, but it isn’t believable, and in a film that relies heavily on realism over scares, the dialogue at various points dissipates the allusive atmosphere which The Witch in the Window is trying to build.
I don’t remember the last time a ghost story had so much potential and so few genuine chills. The lore to Lydia as a woman who died in her window, only to be noticed weeks later as a kid by the now adult neighbor, Louis (Greg Naughton), is absolutely unnerving. The thought of any corpse sitting in a window for weeks unnoticed is enough to get under your skin and set the film on a good track into Chill Town (if the alliance of the same name, Boogie and Will from Big Brother are there, they’re hopefully long dead). But from that point on, The Witch in the Window employs the usual creaks, groans, and shadows of a haunted house, though much fewer and further between than the average haunting film (which is really a blessing in disguise, because there’s nothing like a jump scare every two minutes to ruin a film).
But The Witch in the Window doesn’t really do anything in place of “scares” either. The atmosphere is more sad than frightening, and as I mentioned before, the film is far more concerned about trying to make you blubber like a baby than actually scaring you. It’d be great if I was watching a family drama, but this is a horror film, damnit. I don’t need blood and guts, and every fan has their own idea of what scares them, but The Witch in the Window doesn’t even try, treating the ghost as more of a friendly curiosity than anything which the characters or we as the audience should be afraid of. I mean come on, the father and son even discuss how it might be totally fine to live with the ghost! Hell no, run, get out of there, that’s what I should be saying. Instead, Mitton goes for a more philosophical approach, and it’s not enough to get this fan’s ghost going.
However, the unique depiction of Lydia cannot be understated. Too often, horror directors feel the unnecessary need to slap slimy, ectoplasmic CGI goo all over the screen. But in the case of The Witch in the Window, Mitton presents Lydia as a flesh and ghost blood physical being in much the same way as James Wan’s Insidious spirits. There’s nothing quite like seeing Lydia for the first time, because there is something unnaturally creepy about a ghost that looks more like a corpse and less like an ethereal trick of the light. Again, the eeriness of her presence quickly wears off when Simon and Finn act more curious than unnerved by her. I understand that Mitton is going for something a little deeper than your average ghost story, and in some ways it works, but as a horror film, The Witch in the Window is about as eerie as a stain on a couch. You may wonder where said stain came from and why it’s still there, but you won’t lose any sleep over it.
For a two hour film, The Witch in the Window outlasts its runtime by…wait, what? It’s only 77 minutes!? Don’t get me wrong, the film is well crafted with superb acting, but holy shit does it feel longer than that. The film is essentially a therapy session between father and son that feels so much longer than the initial one hour appointment. I’m exaggerating a bit, but the fact of the matter is The Witch in the Window fits into a current trend of horror similar to The Witch or The Babadook, films which revolve around a deep, psychological study of human relationships, but unlike those films, The Witch in the Window doesn’t do enough to keep the audience captivated, and fails to bring the horror along with the exploration of themes, which is what those other films do so well.
Spine-tingling or not, The Witch in the Window does have its moments, and stands out, maybe not as something that’s all that entertaining, but as a calm, unique ghost story which settles for emotional realism. And while you may not find the film particularly scary, the ending will indeed haunt you. Don’t go into The Witch in the Window expecting your average supernatural scare fest. The Witch in the Window requires patience, but if you like horror that takes its time and can buy into the relationship between father and son, then this one is certainly worth checking out. Still, it proves that you can’t, and shouldn’t, always believe the hype.
Catch The Witch in the Window at PUFF by getting tickets here, otherwise you can catch the film when it premiers on Shudder later this year.
By Matt Konopka