Ghost stories seem to be an undying trend in cinema. Like spirits haunting the living, so too do ghost stories continue to haunt audiences. This year’s The Witch in the Window is a ghost story from Andy Mitton, a director known for We Go On (2016) and YellowBrickRoad (2010). It follows Simon (Alex Draper) and his seemingly troubled son, Finn (Charlie Tacker). We shortly discover that the boy has done something wrong that upset his parents, especially his paranoid mother living in New York. Simon decides to take his son along to Vermont, where he has acquired a house he’s planning to ‘flip out’ (his term for renovate) and could use a hand from his grumpy son. But it soon becomes apparent that Simon and Finn are not alone in the house. A supernatural presence is sensed, and a strange local man, as per usual, seems to know more than our two protagonists.
The Witch in the Window evokes the eerie atmosphere of its gothic predecessors like The Woman in Black (1989), and the more modern ghost story The Innkeepers (2011), for example. The film captures that uncanny feeling one gets upon entering a house (a hotel, a room) where a person had previously died, often in tragic circumstances. In fact, the first thing Finn asks his father when they get to house is has someone been “chopped here”. The old, empty house, with beds carefully made and furniture covered with sheets is bizarrely unsettling. The silence of an inhabited space makes the flesh crawl. Once they enter the house, they know that something has been awakened, and they are not alone.
Apart from being a typical ghost story, The Witch in the Window captures the relationship between a dad and a growing up son. Tacker as Finn seems a bit too nice to be ‘a moody teenager’ but his acting is natural and with his character’s curiousity to investigate every dark corner and strange noise, he managed to put me on edge. Draper as Simon, although a bit awkward at times, is mostly convincing as an emotional father who suddenly has to deal with a malevolent ghost. For most of The Witch in the Window we witness the not always easy relationship between father and son, and how the unknown supernatural presence affects that relation. The dialogue between the two and their reactions to what’s going on in the house, though, add to the film and make it a bit more than just any scare-jumpy horror.
While the film mostly relies on ‘show-don’t-tell’ technique, the sinister presence can be felt most of the time. The windows from the title actually become quite freaky, although at times the film seems to verge off into a game of ‘Where’s Wally?’. Sometimes the build-up and the ‘not really knowing’, is better and more effective than facing the ghost. The first half of The Witch in the Window is exactly that and it kept me on my toes. After revealing its cards, however, it falls a bit flat and a lot of questions arise which, unfortunately, aren’t satisfactorily dealt with.
The story of The Witch in the Window lasts 77 minutes, which is a rather nice change from the 120-minute plus runtime of most modern films. On the one hand, the story is more condensed, to the point, and the scares are, perhaps, more effective because of this. On the other hand, an extra 5-10 minutes would allow Mitton to expand on the story of the titular witch. There are old hags, ghosts and witches in horror film aplenty – Jennet Humfrye, Helena Markos, to name a few. They all have a background story that fleshes out their character and makes them more sinister. The Witch in the Window’s Lydia, though, is underdeveloped and ends up being diminished to merely a witch in a window.
As well as being the director, Andy Mitton is also the writer, producer, and a composer of the film’s eerie music. The music score, as in many horror films, often has much bigger impact than visuals. Just think about the soundtracks from Halloween (1978), Suspiria (1977) or It Follows (2014). Andy Mitton’s writing of the music and the fact he edited the film himself has certainly allowed him more freedom in translating his vision to the screen. His slow piano sounds and eerie melodies definitely add to overall spookiness of the film.
The Witch in the Window is definitely worth a shot. It’s another ghost story about an old lady haunting a house, but perhaps with a different twist. Apart from its few flaws, you do care about the characters and will want to see where it all goes. It is about both the living and the dead; the lives we lead and how we end them. Although Simon seems to be able to communicate with the spirit, do not expect Beetlejuice-like turn of events with a jolly dance around a table. Another Lydia, however, might be sitting in and staring out of the window.