PUFF 2018: The Witch in the Window and Buybust
The Witch in the Window (dir. Andy Mitton)
One of my favorite movies at the inaugural PUFF was Andy Mitton’s We Go On. So rare that a horror movie can evoke chills without the help of special effects, but Mitton made it look easy. By utilizing strong character work in lieu of jump scares, he was able to conjure a sense of dread without resorting to cheap jolts. He even had the audacity to give his film a sense of hope, eschewing the standard cynicism at the heart of so many fright flicks. This year, Mitton returned to PUFF with his latest effort The Witch in the Window. Needless to say, I was excited to see if he could capture lightning in a bottle a second time. So, could he?
The Witch in the Window is hands down the best film of PUFF 3, and is pretty much guaranteed a spot on my Best of 2018 list. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a theatrical experience like this one, in which every member of a helplessly engaged audience gasps, screams, and involuntarily rises from their seats in fright. Not since The Descent has a scare so effectively rocked such a large group of people. No lie, at the midpoint of this terrifying creepshow, there’s a scare so well designed, so well executed, that for a split second not a single seat had an ass in it. And this WASN’T a jump-scare. Believe me, folks, when I say that it was downright masterful. Even more impressive is that fact that the scare is telegraphed for a very long time, yet the lead up to it registers only as suspense. The scare happens exactly when you expect it to, and exactly how you expect it to... and it is absolutely horrifying. There’s even a scare that revolves around being able to solve an onscreen Magic Eye puzzle. Don’t worry if you can’t do it, as it’s a minor inclusion in a sea of greatness, but if you can, you will get chills (brag: I can totally still do it). My point being that The Witch in the Window requires active engagement in order to take full effect, and it’s such a blast to watch that even a resistant viewer will certainly fall under its spell.
The story is a true original. Young Finn is at the age where troublemaking is sort of his forte, and when he takes his mischief one step too far, his mother sends him to spend a few weeks with his estranged father, Simon. Simon is working to flip an old house in the middle of nowhere, but sees this surprise reunion with his son as an opportunity to reforge the relationship they once had. “I wish I caught you on the twelve side of twelve,” remarks Simon to his aggravated offspring.
The house has different plans, however. It’s a nice piece of real estate, but unfortunately it comes with a sordid history - a history which may still have a supernatural sway over the home. The father and son duo are forced into a situation where they must face fears both ordinary and extraordinary while opening up to one another in unexpected ways.
Much like his previous efforts, Mitton’s latest finds its effectiveness through strong character work, letting the story fuel the scares rather than assembling a story around spooky moments. As such, the tale unfolds organically, and it affects characters that are easy to care about - easy to fear for.
Buybust (dir. Erik Matti)
I think The Raid ruined martial arts movies for me to a degree. At least the films that are trying to borrow its style. Buybust, which certainly has plenty of merits on its own, is one of those films. Unfortunately, it looks too much like The Raid to fully forge the identity it so clearly wants. Perhaps I’m being harsh due to my strong distaste for hyperkinetic editing, but for a movie that exceeds two hours, and fills most of its runtime with non-stop action, I’d love it if more than a collective total of 15 minutes or so were visually coherent. Oh well. That said, when Buybust shines, it shines brightly. There’s a single-take throwdown toward the end that is absolutely breathtaking, but getting there can be a little frustrating.
Where the film succeeds is in what it tackles through plot. A bare bones version is this: A group of anti-drug enforcement agents bust into a Manila slum to capture a violent drug lord. Simple as that. An easy way to set up bodies and knock ‘em down with karate, and if the choreography was tighter, the editing cleaner, and the lighting, well, existent, that would be more than enough. But since this falls short on an action front, the filmmakers were smart to dig a bit deeper. Amidst this group of highly trained agents, there are allegiances, betrayals, and hints of pre-existing assumptions amongst them. When the group enters the slum, it’s not so simple as smoking out the bad guys either. What the agents have failed to consider is how the slum operates in a vacuum. A lot of regular, good people live there, and while their lives may look tragic to the outsider, there is an ecosystem which our team of heroes have to learn about on the spot. Sure, the drug lords are bad dudes, but there are reasons why they have remained in power. By giving the townsfolk agency in how they are affected by the larger plot, it’s easier to forgive some slipshod editing and minimal lighting - my mind was so concerned with the story that I was able to ignore the action. Can’t really say that about The Raid.