We seem to be in the throws of a trend in 2018: many of the greatest horror films that have been given to us this year have reflected on one of the scariest things that many of us will do– become parents. From A Quiet Place to Hereditary to even bits within the new Halloween, horror has taken a deep dive into just how horrifying it can be to raise our offspring. How much should we protect them? How much should we sacrifice of ourselves for them? At what point do we let them out into the world? Will our mistakes reflect upon their upbringings? Shudder’s exclusive The Witch in the Window is yet another well-done film that makes many of us think twice about starting families.
In Andy Mitton’s subtle, yet effective 77-minute film, loving father Simon (Alex Draper) takes his odd son Finn (Charles Everett Tacker) to help him work on a countryside house that he intends to “flip” over to new owners once he finishes his repairs. Simon and Finn’s mom Beverly (Arija Bareikis) are separated, and Beverly expresses concern over Finn’s coldness towards her, as well as his questionable Internet browser searches. Finn is a precocious preteen, right at the age of 12– on the brink of leaving childhood and entering his teen years– who seems to prefer the company of his oft-gone father over his protective mother. Finn seems to have no problem asking Simon the uncomfortable questions that any parent dreads being asked, like, Does he believe in ghosts?
After about forty minutes of setup (that fly by because you are genuinely interested in this particular father-son dynamic) we are introduced to the narrative’s titular antagonist, “Lydia,” whose presence could be felt all throughout the house in prior sequences. When Finn walks upstairs to find the ghostly woman sitting in the chair that him and his father had been warned by previous homeowners about, both he and Simon are initially terrified (as are we, the audience members.) Mitton proves himself to be a competent director during this unsettling scene, as the camera only shows us the back of the tall chair, with just the left arm of the female apparition– careful not to reveal too much too soon. Simon and Finn only slowwwwly begin to approach the woman, whose face we have yet to see, and we the audience become just as anxious as they are. Mitton understands that, in order to build proper suspense that causes your heart to race in anticipation of the visual that you know is coming, you must be patient and wait. And boy, is it worth the wait.
Without getting into too much spoilery territory, the ghostly woman lurking throughout their home becomes stronger as Simon’s work on the house gets closer to becoming completed, and her growing power becomes increasingly problematic for him and his son. And no, they can’t just pack their things and ditch the house, because this powerful supernatural force never wants them to leave– which is when the complications ensue, and you are left wondering what will become of this sympathetic family.
Similar to the types of dinner table-discussion fears that Hereditary conveyed to us earlier this year, The Witch in the Window derives its emotional maturity from its themes of grown-up fears that only come as one ages and has experienced many of life’s obstacles. No longer does one fear the boogeyman or the monsters under the bed; adults’ anxieties can be more worldly, more personal, or just more realistic– and therefore, more complicated. Simon harbors the primary fear that he does not really understand who his son truly is anymore, as Finn veers away from former kiddie interests. Additionally, he is also frightened of not being able to win back his ex Beverly, whom he still loves, and wishes to mend their separated family with. Simon is aware that he has spent a lot of time away from his former wife and his son, (which is probably what separated them) but he believes it to be justifiable, for trying to make a better life for them– that is, until the womanly ghost shows up and starts making him believe otherwise. Meanwhile, Beverly’s trepidations seemingly involve entirely around their son’s safety. Timely anxieties of the post-2016 election are expressed, as Beverly discusses her concern for Finn’s safety at school, regarding “school shootings,” “this president,” and easily accessible dark web content– commenting that, similar to the messages lying within A Quiet Place– there is only so much we can protect our children from that is totally beyond our control. Not even lying to our children will protect them, as Simon often lies to Finn about topics that he believes Finn is too young to learn the truth about.
Draper and Tacker share very believable father-son chemistry, even if their vast physical differences require some suspension of disbelief. Tacker’s performance as young Finn never feels forced– he even daringly portrays Finn as an angsty, disinterested, entitled Gen-Z brat that comes off so realistically that you are off-putted. Draper as Simon is also conveyed with such realism and empathy that your heart breaks for how his character ends up by the film’s conclusion.
Not enough can be said about the film’s dread-inducing, yet beautifully moving atmosphere. The cinematography captures the quiet peacefulness of the family’s countryside home– with shots of the shimmering water on the lake, as well as sunsets and nearby clouds in the sky. The piano-driven score invokes the same level of weepiness as the film’s script, while reminding you that The Witch in the Window is much more than a run-of-the-mill haunted house story– it’s a story with a beating heart that drives its narrative from true poignance rather than juvenile levels of “look at the scary ghost in the corner” genre conventionalism (which, by the way, Lydia the ghost is actually quite terrifying when she appears.)
I’ve read a few criticisms that the film’s (somewhat) hopeful ending doesn’t match the rest of its tone, but I would disagree. Sometimes “happy” endings may not always be what should happen, but what has to happen, in order to do what is best for the ones you love. Familial constructions are never simple, and The Witch in the Window reflects this in a horrifying, yet heartbreaking way.~