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Smartly directed from a meager budget, this melancholy ghost story is at its most effective when it doesn't try to be scary.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW premieres August 7, but Teatteri Union is hosting a sneak preview July 23.

THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW, directed by Andy Mitton, has been making the rounds for a few years by now, startling audiences around the world at festivals big and small. Now it’s finally arriving in Finland, courtesy of the Night Visions Film Festival. Made for what appears to be a few dollars and change, Mitton’s calling card picture makes up for a meager budget with inventive chills and a deep love for its genre. 

We arrive into the story after things have already fallen apart. Simon (Alex Draper) is visiting his estranged wife to collect his son for a summer away from New York. The entire family relationship is strained, Alex and Beverly (Arija Bareikis) can barely handle a civil conversation, and their son, Finn (Charlie Tacker), is so turned inwards he might implode any minute. But Simon has a plan: six weeks in the remote countryside at a house he’s just bought for a supposed flipping project. Perfect bonding time for father and son, something that will hopefully bring the family back together again. But when their new neighbor, Louis (Greg Naughton), warns them to leave the house for good, things begin to take a turn for the worse.

The bones of THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW are as traditional as they come. Deeply entwined with American fascination of ownership, homesteads, and the erosion of the family unit, Mitton mines the expansive genre hungrily for anything he can get his hands on. There’s the metaphor for the man rebuilding his life as a physical construction project; a deeply troubled neighbor who can only hand out information in sporadic bursts; and there are, sadly, jump scares, just when you hope that the film could survive without them.

None of the setup is particularly new, yet the presentation works thanks to a great cast and chemistry between Draper and Tacker. While dialog occasionally stumbles into some truly clunker territory (everything about Bareikis’ initial tirade is groan worthy), Draper carries even the hammiest bits of the story effortlessly. Looking like a love child between Richard Dreyfuss and Paul Rudd, Draper sells the longing and despair his character is trying to expel with every nail struck into the renewed foundations. 

If there is one major fault that Mitton’s film continuously stumbles in, it’s that it doesn’t know when to pull back and let the terror breathe. An early bit of bickering between Draper and Tacker sees the former explain to his son the importance of never milking a good thing too far, yet it’s a lesson the film doesn’t seem to follow. For the majority of the slim running time (just under 80 minutes), the titular Witch, Lydia, is glimpsed in the background, hiding in plain sight. Her presence is more ethereal than overbearing, which in turn makes it that much more terrifying. 

But Mitton can’t help but milk a good thing, so Lydia begins to appear more and more, until it feels like the camera is focusing on her so much that the next logical step is a giant neon sign above her head. By the time the finale rolls around, her menace has been reduced to loud screeching and an overbearing soundtrack. 

Thankfully the rest of the picture is impeccably strong. There’s a mournful and unnerving tone that permeates the story, and it’s captured gorgeously by cinematographer Justin Kane in the details of the house and fading landscape. Everything about this world feels fleeting, as if Draper’s attempts at holding his family together was going against the way of the universe itself. As with all good ghost stories, it feels timeless. When the film focuses on this aspect, it soars. Evoking the best kind of connection with early M. Night Shyamalan and Jee-woon Kim’s A TALE OF TWO SISTERS. 

I think even Mitton knows this, because once he’s gotten past the obligatory scares (which make for good trailer footage if nothing else), the story settles into a more introspective mood. A nightmarish sequence where time and space fold on themselves is particularly effective, and there’s an almost tender tone which Mitton sows into the wonder that goes hand in hand with the scares. Once we realize that ghosts are real, we have to accept that we’re also never alone. 

It’s the kind of brilliant realization rarely utilized in the genre that makes THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW feel special. Funnily enough, it’s also the kind of breaking away from genre conventions that makes the film more terrifying than anything the old traditional scares could muster. 

Mitton has the makings of a grand horror poet. Like his characters, scared yet ultimately captivated, I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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