Witch in the Window, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/09/19 23:54:54

"Simple but very effective ghost story."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Thumbs up to "The Witch in the Window" being a 75-minute horror movie, which is almost always the best length for movies in the genre to be. May filmmakers' increasing recognition of streaming services as their ultimate landing spot keep them from adding fifteen to twenty unneeded minutes going forward. It's not always going to result in something as naturally compact and effective as this, but that's something to strive for.

For Finn (Charlie Tacker), the horror starts with father Simon (Alex Draper) dragging him north from New York to rural Vermont, where there's no cell phone coverage and the house they're staying in is a fixer-upper that Simon plans to flip; as pretty as the area is, it's not exactly a city kid's ideal summer vacation. Still, he hasn't seen his dad much since the divorce, it is kind of nice to have this much room to himself, and the neighbors seem nice. Still, Louis next door (Greg Naughton) isn't exactly eager to help Simon with the wiring, and eventually the electrician explains why: The previous owner, Lydia (Carol Stanzione), had been sitting in her chair by the window dead for the better part of a month before someone called the police, and that's the sort of story that makes people feel like she never really left.

Despite the film's brief length, writer/director Andy Mitton doesn't push the scares too hard, trying to get to jumps and escalating the danger quickly. He favors the scene where the viewer realizes that there's somebody else in frame when it's quiet enough for the eye to wander, and the question is less when Lydia showed up (she's always there), but what exactly is making Simon or Finn receptive to seeing her. Milton lets the characters' fear drive the story as much as the actual presence of a ghost, letting it spiral, as a frightened kid leads to a father afraid he can't protect his son, and a frightened father makes it worse for a kid.

A large part of what makes it work is that, even more than most ghost stories, it's not really Lydia's story, and Mitton makes little pretense of it. His film is mostly quiet and often even upbeat as it shows the father and son connecting as they repair the house. It gets sweeter and more responsible as it goes on rather than seeming foolish and panicked, and as a result it's scary but not destructive at its heart, which is relatively unique where ghost stories are concerned. Lydia haunts her house not out of wrath or possessiveness, but loneliness, of a sort that she's helped create herself. Eventually, it's clear how this is relevant to Finn, Simon, and his ex-wife Beverly (Arija Bareikis); solitude is not the only thing that makes ghosts of people.

There's a nice chemistry between the two stars, as well; Charlie Tacker and Alex Draper make for a thoroughly believable pairing. Tacker starts from a familiar place but only ever seems like he's primarily a surly kid for a moment or two; he's got an appealing openness to him without seeming precocious. Draper finds just the right combination of Simon being loved by his son but maybe a little more objectively disappointing; He's just the right sort of screwed up. The pair do good work even when Mitton is being a little too writerly with their talk, tipping his hand that they're talking with the audience as much as each other. It's a genuinely impressive father/son story with or without ghosts.

Not every ghost story can fit so comfortably into such a small package while still having room to breathe; a steady diet of such simplicity would get even the most ardent fan of supernatural art-house fare looking for something bigger. It works, though, and probably works just as well for folks who generally don't go for horror movies in general.

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