Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Witch in the Window (2018)

Warning: vague spoilers about the ending and more concrete ones about the film’s themes will be forthcoming!

Simon (Alex Draper) and his wife Beverly (Arija Bareikis) have been separated, though not divorced, for some time now. Simon’s going to take their twelve year-old son Finn (Charlie Tacker) for the summer. This isn’t just going to give father and son some of that quality time you hear about, but should also put a bit of distance between a mother who seems to be in full on “oh, these horrible modern times!” mode that’s bordering on the unhealthy right now and a kid who is twelve, and therefore bound to react badly towards overprotectiveness of this or any sort.

It’s not bound to be a boring vacation for Finn and his father, though, for Simon has bought an old farmhouse somewhere in rural Vermont, aiming to fix it up and flip it. It’s all well and good for a time, but there’s something very wrong about the house. It is haunted by the malevolent spirit of Lydia (Carol Stanzione), the former owner whose corpse was found looking out of an upstairs window. But what at first seems to be a conventional haunting and threat turns out to be stranger and perhaps less evil than it at first appears, at least in a sense.

Andy Mitton’s follow-up to the wonderful We Go On – produced for Shudder – is again a ghost story, and again an excellent film, even though I heartily disagree with some of the conclusions about the boundlessness of fatherly love it makes towards the end. But then, there’s clearly a cultural difference between the American insistence on protecting children from every little bit of knowledge about the world and my more laissez faire European attitudes standing between the film and me. However, while I disagree with the film’s ideas about protection and parental love, and find what is clearly meant to be a comparatively positive ending rather disagreeable (just imagine your father’s ghost lingering protectively over your teenage bed while you masturbate, and ask yourself if that’s really such a pleasant, cosy feeling; as a man whose father died when he was five, I hope his ghost has better things to do with his time), as I do the usual bourgeois cliché about the city being the place of all evil, which is particularly ironic in a film whose only actual evil takes place in the country. These things are not just some random musings sprinkled around the core of the film but part and parcel of what’s going on all of the time. At least, they do make psychological sense for the characters; my objection is that the film seems to agree with Simon’s reasoning so completely and so comes to underplay the horror of what is happening in the end rather terribly.

On a more practical level, I find little that isn’t to admire about the film. There’s a lovely organic feeling about The Witch’s slow start that’s all about introducing the viewer to the characters, creating a father-son duo that feels likeable and taken from life. There’s an extraordinary warmth to Draper’s performance that sells Simon as a father, as well as a warm and suffering human being. Tacker isn’t quite as consistently great – no child actor is ever quite perfect but that’s okay – but his interactions with Draper always ring true. Mitton really takes his time in fleshing this central relationship out, and the later parts of the film work much better thanks to its careful and thoughtful treatment.

When it comes to the scary parts, at first The Witch in the Window seems to be a rather straightforward ghost story with the sort of scares you’d expect of it and its creepy ghost lady; very well realized scares, mind you. Further developments turn towards a weirder direction, playing very effectively with time, space and mind of Simon.

So, while I disagree with The Witch in the Window on many philosophical and ideological points, I still very much appreciate and recommend it. If nothing else, it’s a prime example of how to write a script whose elements are truly coming together to make a thematic whole; something quite a few filmmakers working on the more mainstream side of horror could learn from.

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