Andy Milton's atmospheric haunted house film is inscrutably scary and beautifully lit, balancing bone-chilling existential horror with compelling domestic drama.
Here it is, 2018’s version of The Witch and It Follows, a horror movie in which half its audience will appreciate its slow, moody burn, and the other half will complain that nothing happens. The Witch in the Window, the third feature for writer/director Andy Mitton, is a haunted house story driven by not just fear of the supernatural, but fear of failure, and fear that we can’t protect the people we love, and is surprisingly effective, even with any real scares kept to a minimum.
Simon (Alex Draper), upon his ex-wife’s demand, is forced to take his troubled adolescent son, Finn (Charlie Tacker), to Vermont for the summer, where Simon plans to flip a house in the country. It’s clear that Simon hasn’t been around too much recently, and he hopes to use the trip at least as much to reconnect with Finn as set him straight after he gets in trouble for looking at something he shouldn’t have on the internet (it’s not what you think). Finn has attitude to spare, but slowly warms to the idea of spending the summer helping his father restore a house to sell for profit.
They’re not even there a day, however, before they meet their closest neighbor, Louis (Greg Naughton, speaking with an accent straight out of a Stephen King novel), who tells them about the house’s previous owner, a woman named Lydia believed by the other townspeople to be a witch, and who might have put her husband and son through a hay baler. “Most people, I think, generally try and do good,” Louis explains. “But this woman was…the other way.” Lydia died in the house, and presumably her spirit remains trapped in its good, solid bones, rotting it from the inside out.
Neither Simon or Finn seem particularly ruffled by Louis’s story, even though the house seems to rumble with malevolence at night, and both are shaken by frightening visual and auditory hallucinations. They’re averse to admitting that they’re afraid, Finn because he doesn’t want to look childish, Simon because he doesn’t want Finn to think he can’t protect him. Simon, we soon discover, has a hidden motive in restoring the house, and his desire to make things right with his family after years of running away from his responsibilities will ultimately prove to be his downfall.
This may be a strange thing to say, but The Witch in the Window is one of the most beautifully lit horror movies I’ve ever seen. Much of the film takes place during the day, and some scenes all but glow with dreamy sunlight. As opposed to the imposing suburban home in The Amityville Horror, with those infamous staring eye windows, this house, even with its sinister past, is the quaint country home that harried city dwellers dream of escaping to, and Simon’s fierce desire to stay and make it work, even if it means trying to make peace with the angry ghost who lives in it, makes an odd sense.
Though not without its flaws, and some of the inexplicable choices horror movie characters make (why would you let your child go nearly nose to nose with a stranger who just appears in your house out of nowhere?), The Witch in the Window nicely balances a supernatural thriller with domestic drama, bringing it together in an unexpectedly moving, bittersweet ending. At barely 75 minutes, despite not a lot happening, it moves along at a steady clip, with some genuinely clever, creepy twists during the last half hour. With not a drop of blood spilled, and only a couple minor jump scares, the horror it offers is in realizing that love can trap you in ways you never could have imagined.