Liam: The Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival just finished its third year of presenting the latest in genre film to an eager audience in Center City Philly. Started in 2016 by Madeleine Koestner and Alex Gardner, PUFF seeks to fill the perceived void left by the end of the always amazing Danger After Dark series at Philadelphia Film Festival. Now, this is the first year Cinepunx, and by extension I, have made the effort to cover this fest, and I admit I went in skeptical. There have been many folks laboring away in Philly trying to represent genre film exhibition, as well as filmmaking, so this fest seemed to come out of nowhere and stake a claim on being new and different. As a good Philadelphian, I am healthily skeptical of anything new, especially new things that come from outside the city. That being said, Cinepunx is not a haven for haters, so I needed to stop judging and check it out. While being a new dad keeps me from jumping into a cool fest like this with both feet, I was able to check out some films on Saturday, September 8th and I am so glad I did. If I had not, I would have missed out on this really impressive feature, The Witch in The Window. I happened to check this film out with new member of the Cinepunx family and host of Whine & Cheese, Mike Paulshock, so we thought a good intro to all of you would be to write this review together. I honestly went into this film as skeptical as I was about the fest, though in this case it was with good reason. I did not enjoy this directors last feature, We Go On, which you can hear all about on this episode of Horror Business. However, this feature has completely turned me around on this director, and I am excited to see more.
Mike: On the surface, The Witch in the Window seems like your standard, run-of-the-mill haunted house story. A father and son who don’t seem to have much in common hit the road to the remote Vermont countryside in order to flip a home… but here’s the twist: there’s a hidden history within the home, and there’s a presence that’s not ready to allow open houses and realtors through the door.
For a movie I had no prior awareness of, with a title that seems fairly “blah,” The Witch in the Window made me a believer. Not in ghosts (I was already a believer in those). Coming in at a brief 77 minutes, this film finds a way to perfectly balance the overused terms “slow burn” and “suspense” without any of the “cheap thrills” that have become all too common in modern horror films. It doesn’t drag. It doesn’t feel stale. It keeps transforming, and finding ways to alter expectations. (SPOILER ALERT: the “clone” concept, the neighbor’s sleepwalking, the ultimate ending, etc.)
Liam: One of the aspects of the film I think is really impressive is this elusive combination of a creeping feeling of dread and a truly poignant family drama. The film focuses on this relationship between Simon, an estranged father struggling with his role as a parent and provider, and his son Finn who is unsure of his place in the world and in the life of his father. Their relationship is unique, but relatable in its uniqueness. It avoids many of the “this family is broken” cliches, but also touches on some universal themes. It is also a film about a father and son that is equally, in subtle ways, about the mother. This has foreshadowing both for the end of the film, but more immediately for the dread of the film. The witch, Lydia, is ever present in subtle and not so subtle ways, but also the figure of “the witch” — that is the woman that men find threatening and scary — is also present. This is a film in many ways about the (largely but not exclusively) heterosexual relationships between men and women, and between mother and sons. It manages to tell this story without resorting to many mysognistic tropes, unfortunately a largely unique achievement in many films dealing with these themes.
As haunted house movies go, for me, an especially important aspect of the narrative has to be what exactly is at stake. If a house is haunted, why does that matter for our protagonists? If it’s just jump scares and spooky noises, as much as this might suggest some real fear, these alone do not move me. This film does a good job of starting us with some real world concerns (why does this even matter, what is at stake for Simon in his personal life?) and then quickly increases the stakes in a truly upsetting way. In that way the family drama, which is at times poignant and painful on its own, works quite well with the haunting itself. Simon is in many ways haunted by failure, both personal and financial, as much as by the murderous witch who died in his new house so long ago.
Mike: The film wasn’t without its flaws. Being what I assume is a lower-budget film (again, I really knew nothing about this movie until I showed up in the theater), there were some audio editing issues and a few moments where I questioned the actors’ performances. However, the script had some of the most convincing lines and biggest scares that I’ve seen in recent horror. There were witty jabs between father and son, not to mention reactions that felt so true-to-form that they seemed written from personal experience — and I should mention, the audience reactions were incredible, too.
There was plenty of foreshadowing in this film. Depending on how closely the viewer is watching, you can find the witch (let’s call her Lydia) lurking in the background of no less than five scenes, patiently biding her time for the big payoff scare, which reminded me of a scene out of It Follows or The Sentinel. That’s not to say that the director beat you over the head with the foreshadowing; it was tempered nicely.
Liam: I feel like the title of this film might be confusing for some and a bit of a gimmick for others depending on how closely you pay attention. I won’t give any particular examples, but I think it is worth addressing in advance. I foresee people seeing this as maybe a bit corny or repetitive. Just know there will, at some point — maybe a few points — be a witch in a window. For me, that was great! If you are for some reason annoyed at this film delivering on the promise of the actual title, then this might bum you out. For me, the pacing was the best part. Things start off slow, maybe even a little meandering, but slowly there is a ramp up to a truly upsetting moment. Then, from there, things get not only more frightening, but more engaging as well. Are all the performances great? Nah, this can be a bit rough at times. However, Alex Draper as Simon, even more than Charlie Tacker as Finn, is the one who needs to really sell this movie and he does. He brings a believably intense aspect to the role, and he really adds a bit of charm to scenes that could be only played for tension. Simon is a real person, a complicated person, and that depth is what the film needs. I think if you like hauntings with a bit of heart, this film will really work for you.
Mike: Pulling influence from some of the greats, this movie is teeming with great wide-angle shots (the son swinging his feet out of the second-story barn window, great exterior shots of the Vermont wilderness, plenty of shots leering down a creepy, old hallway). And, I may be wrong about this, but I can’t remember any semblance of blood or guts in the entire feature. This movie gets by on good, old fashioned tension, relationships, dialogue and a few good scares along the way.
The Witch in the Window was screened as part of the 3rd annual Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival.