Now, I know this is not what many would consider a “mainstream’ horror film, as it is a Shudder exclusive (Shudder being a streaming platform that contains only horror… so essentially a platform built for people like me) however, this indie feature was released to VOD platforms recently so that everyone could check it out and I decided to have a look.
You would be excused for not having heard of this feature before, as I myself was surprised to see this one pop up on a recommendations page. I try to keep up with the horror community, but even I hadn’t heard anything about this film at all, save for THIS REVIEW
It wasn’t just the fact that Emma from Spooky Astronauts praised the film, but that the project was directed by Andy Milton – a horror director who created one of my favorite indie chillers We Go On. If you haven’t seen We Go On yet, stop what you are doing and seek it out. It was a huge surprise for me and is less of a horror and more of a contemplation on death and what it means to pass away and the film does a fantastic job of blending an interesting drama with some sprinkles of comedy and enough chilling reveals to keep you up at night.
Anyway, when I looked into The Witch in the Window a bit, I quickly decided it would be my next review as it is a contained horror (as Hank says, something we should all have in our back pocket – just in case!) and I think that projects like these always offer lots for us to talk about as filmmakers and storytellers.
So what is The Witch in the Window about?
WitW starts with a father (played by Alex Draper, doing his best Paul Rudd impersonation – which totally works!) who takes his estranged son out to the country to help fix up a house so that he can flip it. Of course, strange things begin to happen and the father and son learn that they might not be alone in the old home…
This description, admittedly, sounds very cliché – we have seen this plot before, but it is the execution that I want to talk about here:
Yes, the pitch is generic, but it is the way that the filmmaker imbues his characters with a sense of humanity and gives the film time to establish themselves before throwing us into the deep-end with scares, that sets this apart. This is something that Andy Milton has proved he is adept at doing with his earlier film We Go On, and that style of storytelling really comes through here.
Another thing I want to talk about is how the film depends on the chemistry between the father and son, so the director makes sure that there are no wasted moments: each line delivered counts and is vital to the characters and plot.
With just a couple of actors, the film (and script) lives or dies on the interactions between the father and son characters. Each conversation reveals a little about who they are, what they want and the (many) conflicts between them, such as the great exchange between the father (Simon) and son (Finn) early on:
SIMON: I just don’t want this trip to be a disappointment.
FINN: I’m already disappointed.
SIMON: Yeah? Well, me too.
SIMON: I guess I was hoping to catch you on the 12 side of 12, instead of the 13 side of 12. (Pause) ‘Cause the kid I used to know would have loved this place.
The acting also plays a big part, but if your script doesn’t have memorable characters and snappy dialogue, it is really hard to make a single-location story work.
Also, the film is only an hour and 17 minutes, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I think this is important to note, as we are seeing some high-concept scripts that are shorter and allow for the director to capitalize on the visuals and concept, rather than padding the page count with unnecessary scenes or story beats.
A Quiet Place is a great example of this as are some other scripts that I have seen recently that come in under 90 pages. Not recommending this for a big studio project, but if you have a high-concept piece and can get it in front of an indie producer, you could very well get their attention if your story connects with them. Or, heck, film it yourself – even just a proof-of-concept teaser can be enough to catch someone’s attention and request more. Just something to consider as the industry is ever-changing and we, as creatives, have to adapt to the new landscape and use everything we can to our advantage to get our projects that ever-elusive greenlight.
I liked the introduction of the neighbor, Louis. Though kind of an obligatory character who you usually see in these things (and who almost-always gets killed off), at least he was given a reason to be there: he is the town’s electrician and the house that Simon bought needs a lot of work.
If you are going to have a character like this, at the very least give them a reason to pop up in the story, rather than just – Oh, I’m your neighbor stopping by for a visit – There is nothing wrong with having friendly neighbors, but we have all seen films where the neighbor shows up at just the right time coincidentally which stretches the believably of the script and story and can make even the most original stories feel stale.
Kind of a fun flip on expectations that the kid, Finn, is excited about the house being haunted by a witch, instead of your typical movie kid (or kid in general) who would be terrified of someone telling them that their house was haunted. As Jordan Peele once said:
“If you can predict where an audience thinks (your story is) going to go, you can use it against them. And they’ll love you for it.”
It is creepy that the old woman who used to live in the house died and no one noticed for weeks and weeks even though they could see her in window. It’s an effective scene and not one that relies on blood or gore, just the thought of it is chilling enough. This is a great example of psychological horror and the less-is-more approach. Sometimes what the audience sees in their mind is scarier than anything that you can put on screen.
Quiet moments are also used a lot in this film which I really appreciate. That is typically harder than stuffing a scene with dialogue or jump-scares and is a credit to the filmmaker and filmmaking team behind this that they trust their actors and atmosphere to keep the audience’s attention. It’s also about having strong characters that we care about and are invested in, so that we will follow them and their story wherever it goes.
For example, the scene after Finn tells his dad that he doesn’t need Simon to leave his door open at night in case Finn gets scared. Finn goes to his room and shuts the door. Then he thinks for a moment and goes back to open it just a crack. As he returns to the bed, he thinks he hears something and returns to pull the door wide open.
That is a funny moment, but one that only works because the filmmaker trusts that the audience will care enough about the story and Finn to sit through the silent scene and wait for the joke.
There is a nice subtle moment later in the film when the father and son both reveal that they know something is very wrong with the house, but neither of them really want to admit it:
FINN: Dad, do you think there is something wrong with the house?
SIMON: Maybe. Do you?
FINN: I think I saw something in the mirror.
FINN: I think a lady.
I also really like the scene below – we talked about subverting expectations and throughout the first half of the film and this is a great example:
To set it up, we (the audience) know that Finn’s mother found disturbing searches on his computer. So, naturally, we (and his father) think it was porn, but when it is revealed to be something much, much darker, both we and Simon are shocked:
SIMON: No, no, it’s just — it’s — look, it’s perfectly normal to want to look at girls, or boys, or whatever —
FINN: No! Oh, my God, Dad, not that kind of stuff! I just meant like scarier stuff…
SIMON: Wait… did you see something violent?
SIMON: Did you see someone get killed?
Finn nods again.
Another nice reveal comes when we learn that Simon wasn’t actually planning to sell the house like he first told Finn. Instead, he was hoping to fix it up and have Finn and his ex-wife move out of the city with him. This feels earned as we build up that Simon has not been the best dad, but sees that Finn and Finn’s mother are under pressure and around a lot of negative influences in the city. Something to consider when you are outlining – make sure that all of your big reveal moments are earned and come naturally.
Throughout the film, as Simon and Finn begin to repair their relationship, the house begins to get magically repaired as well and starts becoming more and more inviting. This would normally feel like forced symbolism or very on-the-nose, but I was satisfied with it in this piece, probably because it was not shoved in our faces.
There is a really cool moment in which the neighbor reveals that he has seen the ghost in the window as well and that anything that Simon fixes in the house will just make Lydia, The Witch in the Window, stronger.
This is a good moment, because all Simon wants to do is fix the house up and make a home for Finn and his ex-wife, but if he continues to try to renovate the home (that he spent all his money on) eventually Lydia (the Witch) will become more powerful and much more dangerous. It is a direct conflict of character wants/needs and poses an interesting dilemma for our hero.
There is another really touching moment (which is surprising to see in a horror film) when Simon wants to send Finn away because the house is unsafe.
SIMON: I know what you’re thinking…
FINN: No, you really don’t.
SIMON: I’m an asshole.
FINN: You’re wrong.
SIMON: I am?
FINN: Yes. You’re my favorite person. Even if maybe I don’t admit it all the time, it’s just… you know. And I always want to be mad at you because I guess mom always is, so… but really, you’re my favorite person… who doesn’t even like me enough to just stick around.
Dang. That line (and that performance by Charlie Tacker as Finn) is hard-hitting and really got me in the feels.
Oh damn! At almost an hour in we get an insane twist that I won’t spoil here, but man, chills. And it is not done with gore or blood or a jump-scare, but with a revelation and the actor’s reaction to this reveal.
My final reaction:
Whew! That is the way to do a slow-burn horror – things don’t really kick into horror mode until about one hour into this one hour and seventeen minute film, but when they do, they kick into high-gear. This is a risk you take when writing one of these, but if you trust that your characters and your story are both compelling enough, then don’t be afraid to tell your story the way that you think it was meant to be told.
The final shot is awesome – equal parts disturbing and touching which is very hard to pull off, but this film does it in spades.
I am going to give The Witch in the Window a WATCH IT rating as it is now one of my most recommended slow-burn horror pieces!
If some of you (like Hank) are put off by horror films, check this one out anyway as it is really a drama about an estranged father trying to reconnect with his son and a meditation on what we leave behind when we are gone. This film will stay with you long after the credits roll and leave you thinking about the characters that you came to care deeply about which makes watching The Witch in the Window a phenomenal experience.
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