My notes on The Witch in the Window, which has screened at the Fantasia Festival.
A deceptively quiet ghost story from writer-director Andy Mitton, this tells a simple, yet resonant story dovetailing the genuine supernatural with a very modern sense of fractured family psychology.
In outline, it’s very like the average TV ghost movie – but there’s a lot more going on under the surface. Simon (Alex Draper), separated from his wife Beverly (Arija Barekis), is called in to take their young son Finn (Charlie Tacker) out of the city for a few weeks. In a vivid, sketch-like first scene, Beverly is clearly upset by Finn’s recent behaviour – which turns out to involve looking at snuff news on the internet – but also very fragile herself (‘and now with this president’), desperate to shield the boy from threats she sees all around in New York. Simon takes Finn to Vermont, where he has bought an old house by the lake for renovation – presumably to resell for a profit, though he also seems to be creating the perfect fantasy home environment Beverly once imagined, complete with stables. Simon tells Finn that no one was ever ‘chopped up’ in the house, because the vendor would have to disclose that, but local electrician/neighbour Louis (Greg Naughton), who is reluctant to set foot in the place, tells them that the place has a bad reputation because of its previous owner, Lydia (Carol Stanzione), who had a witchy reputation and died sat in an old armchair staring out of the window, in plain sight but a corpse for days before anyone noticed that she never moved.
Soon, father and son are seeing Lydia about the house (she’s a little like a more matter-of-fact Woman in Black) and a pervasive air of dread begins to consume them. Simon struggles with the ghost, fighting to protect Finn from a spectre just the way his mother does, but third act developments prompt a radical assessment of what a haunted house is movingly looks at the lengths parents will go to give a child a home that’s a safe haven. Draper, who has the presence of a slightly more presentable Paul Giamatti, is outstanding as the soft-spoken lead, positioned to go down the Amityville-Shining route of a father falling under the house’s malign influence then taking a different tack. Even Stanzione, who essentially has to sit and stare, gives the ghost unusual depth. Underlying the straightforward slow-burn spookery is a sense that the characters (living or dead) are blinkered about their situation, perhaps to a tragic extent. The New York we see isn’t the hellhole Beverly thinks it is (a montage reinforcing this includes one of the best single shots of ghostliness in the movies) and the Vermont retreat is as chilly (and – though no one mentions it – with locals liable to support ‘this president’) as it is idyllic.
It has great use of locations, and conveys a kind of calm creepiness through subtle sound design, subdued visuals, nuanced long-take performances, and understated dialogue.