Every parent reaches a point where they realize they can no longer completely protect their child. It’s a realization that sits like a ball of lead in the stomach. The world can be a terrifying place where some new and unimaginable danger lurks behind every corner. Sometimes there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Writer/Director Andy Mitton (YellowBrickRoad, We Go On) makes these concerns the central conceit of his new film while delivering it in the guise of classic, New England haunted house folklore.
Twelve-year-old Finn finds himself delivered into the care of his estranged father Simon. The young boy’s mother found herself unable to stand the sight of him after he was caught snooping around the darkest corners of the web. Driven by fears of terrorism, psychopaths, natural disasters and “this president” she is too worn out to mother him. Hence, she sends him to stay with her estranged husband. Simon sees this as an opportunity to rebuild his relationship with his son. The two of them embark to Vermont, where the father has purchased an abandoned home in order to restore and flip it for profit.
What father and son fail to take into account is the house’s former occupant still resides there in spirit. The old woman, Lydia, remains a local legend. In life, she was a figure of fear for the neighborhood kids, and the subject of rumor and innuendo regarding her nastiness. Neighborhood children discovered here dead and sitting in her favorite chair, overlooking her yard. Years later, locals claim she haunts the home still. It’s not long before her presence makes itself known to the new homeowners.
Witch succeeds in large part due to the way it paces out its scares. Don’t expect to jump out of your seat every few minutes. This isn’t The Conjuring, where stingers are thrown at the audience every five minutes. For the bulk of Witch, Lydia remains a background presence. She’s keen on observing the duo, and it takes an eagle-eyed viewer patience and diligence to spot her in the background. This stylistic decision makes her appearances all the more unnerving.
Just as important are the moments where Lydia chooses to be present. She appears during moments when Simon (Alex Draper) and Finn (Charlie Tacker) let their guard down and engage with one another with no pretense. Dad in particular struggles with the raw emotion and openness between him and his son. Simon stayed away from his family for so long, he can barely recognize the young man Finn’s started to become. Simon also wrestles with the knowledge of how evil and dangerous the world can be. His instincts scream at him to shield Finn at all costs, yet deep down he knows he can no longer serve as a protector.
The film lays out all the struggles and fear that come as part of the parenthood package. Supernatural entities? One can deal with those problems in due course. The dread that comes with the realization you can’t keep loved ones safe is a different beast altogether. It’s during these times where Lydia makes herself felt as she begins to wear down Simon in order to mold him for her own sinister purposes.
Don’t worry that Witch concerns itself only with the existential horror of finding purpose in a random and cruel world. Mitton also delivers a pitch-perfect, atmospheric haunted house film. He creates an environment where the viewer can almost smell the oil emanate from the hardwood floors, or feel the brittleness of aged wallpaper as it breaks apart at one’s touch.
Carol Stanzione delivers a standout, terrifying performance as the titular witch. One moment she is deathly still, a scowl etched on her face. The next she is s shrieking, hateful being hot in pursuit of her prey. There are two terrific chase sequences that will leave your heart in your throat.
The real strength of the film lies in the father and son bond. Tacker gives the sort of vulnerable performance that shows him skilled beyond his age. Draper alternates between the hope of family reconciliation and despair over what his selfishness has cost him. It’s a strong, nuanced performance that will be instantly recognizable for any parent.
Exclusive to the Shudder streaming service, The Witch In The Window is an instant classic. It’s certainly one of the smartest horror films in a year full of them. It’s a perfect title for the Halloween season, and one I’m looking forward to sharing with the wife and kiddo as soon as possible.