FIFF Review: THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW (2018)

FIFF Review: THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW (2018)

Jul 31, 2018

THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW (2018)
Director: Andy Mitton
Writer: Andy Mitton
Stars: Alex Draper, Charlie Tacker, Arija Bareikis, Greg Naughton, Carol Stanzione

Investment. That is the key word for any good horror film to keep in mind, regardless of what type; otherwise, what you have on your hands is a blood-and-guts bonanza that might be as fun as the best rollercoaster ride, but there’s no heart, no soul, no stakes at all in any of the characters that are presented to you, the audience – a grave cinematic sin if ever there was one.  I’m not even sure you can really qualify writer/director ANDY MITTON’S THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW as a “horror” film. There’s no blood, no guts, no garden tools used to dismember people one limb at a time.  What it does have is a sense of investment in the characters. At times it walks, talks, breathes like an adaptation of a “lost” Stephen King story that you have only just discovered. I mean, hell, it even takes place in Maine.

But maybe when we critics describe a movie as being “King-like”, it’s just a lazy kind of shorthand for stating that the filmmaker is also a good storyteller, who knows exactly what he’s doing. And Mitton most certainly does. But instead of seeking to give us another “ooga-booga” kind of ghost tale, complete with flying objects and jump scares galore, he went a lot more undercover. Instead, what he’s done is served up a family relationship drama, that just happens to have a ghost in it, if the central character can even be called that. And instead of hitting you in the “funny” or the “fright” bone, it aims with deadly precision and gets you…right in the feels.  From the opening scenes, you know this isn’t going to be just another ghost tale, because the titular character doesn’t even come into play until nearly halfway through the movie.

Twelve-year-old Finn (CHARLIE TACKER), has stepped in it again with hia mom, Beverly (ARIJA BAREIKIS), and whatever he did this time, she’s beside herself. No amount of diplomacy from her estranged, ne’er-do-well husband, Simon (ALEX DRAPER) is going to calm her down, either, so maybe it’s a good thing that taking his turn with his son this time, means that he gets to take Finn with him to a house up in the Maine countryside, that he’s trying to flip, (though the less Beverly knows about that, the better.)

But this trip and this project is about a whole lot more than just the house needing some fixing up. “I wish I’d caught you at the ‘twelve’-side of twelve, and not the thirteen-side”, Simon wistfully tells Finn at one point, who makes it clear to his doting dad that he’s not here for any of it, house or relationship repairs.

The wonderful thing about WITCH is that it doesn’t make a big production about this being ‘The House That Has Something Wrong With It.’  Yep, there are still the required creaks, moans and groans, and the sightings to go with. But those who are keenly aware of watching for the smallest details, will be rewarded with some great bits of foreshadowing that Mitton slips into the father/son bonding, almost matter-of-factly.

Then, Simon and Finn get introduced to their only neighbor, Louis (GREG NAUGHTON), in one of the film’s few jump scares. Louis is one of those crusty, thorny Maine types, who still has the ability to be neighborly. You could imagine him living only a few doors down from Jud Crandall in King’s novel, PET SEMATARY. It’s finally Louis who clues the father and son in on the house’s backstory; that nobody was “cut up” in the house itself, but the underlying tragedy is a whole lot more unsettling and harrowing than that.

With this new information, it seems all the more important for Simon to fix things up with Finn. Especially since he can’t fix himself, having discovered recently that he is the unlucky sufferer of a rare heart defect – literally a hole in his heart, and metaphors don’t get more obvious or apt.  Simon readily admits that there’s something missing within him, that keeps him from being the kind of father he wants to be for Finn, and Draper conveys the depth and desperation of this skillfully.

The subtlety that the movie maintains gets a bit less so with the strange vibe around the house, until our lead characters finally come face-to-face with “THE WITCH” herself, an older woman named Lydia (CAROL STANZIONE), who died inside the house under heartbreaking circumstances. As if speaking to a walking, talking ghost isn’t creepy enough, the goosebump factor rises to major levels near the beginning of the third act, once Simon and Finn realize what it is that Lydia can do, and what she really wants.

The all-important chemistry between Draper and young Tacker is how this movie stands or falls, and it works beautifully. It could also be that I’m a sucker for father/son stories, too, so yes, I have to cop to the bias I have on that point.  But all the performances here are great, from Naughton, who gives his soused, scared Louis a deep measure of humanity and empathy that the audience can’t help but identify with, to Stanzione as Lydia, who is certainly scary as hell, and yet not completely all that her given title of “WITCH” may imply.

Mitton, who wore several hats for this, including writing the evocative score, certainly conveys in every frame that this was a labor of love for him, and those have always been my favorite kinds of films – those where the investment made by the filmmakers is genuine and always strongly evident.  I haven’t seen any of Mitton’s previous work, including YELLOWBRICKROAD and the acclaimed WE GO ON, but based on what I’ve seen here, he’s a director whose filmography merits a review for sure.

At the end of the day, THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW is simply all about the lengths that a parent will go to in order to protect and provide for their kids, no matter what the price may be. Three-and-a-half out of five stars.

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