Monday, February 5, 2018

In Theaters: WINCHESTER (2018)

(US/Australia - 2018)

Directed by The Spierig Brothers. Written by Tom Vaughan and The Spierig Brothers. Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Angus Sampson, Eamon Farren, Bruce Spence, Finn Scicluna-O'Prey, Tyler Coppin, Laura Brent, Alice Chaston. (PG-13, 99 mins)

Located in San Jose, CA and now a popular tourist attraction, the Winchester Mystery House is an ideal setting for a haunted house horror movie. It was purchased in 1884 by Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, in which she inherited a 50% stake upon the death of her husband William Wirt Winchester in 1881. Legend has it that the widow Winchester was insane, believing that she was forever cursed by the tortured spirits of those killed by the rifles and firearms manufactured by her late husband's company. She spent the rest of her life adding rooms and levels to the house, turning it into a memorial for those victims, and ordering more construction with news of every life ended by a Winchester product. The two-story home eventually became a maze-like seven stories by the time construction finally ceased upon Mrs. Winchester's death in 1922. It's filled with endless hallways, hidden rooms, secret passages, and stairways that lead nowhere. Building was said to have gone on non-stop, 24/7 for the 38 years between Mrs. Winchester's purchase of the house until her death. While construction did go on for 38 years, often at all hours of the day and night, historians now suggest that she sent the workers away for weeks or months at a time and the work wasn't quite literally non-stop from 1884 to 1922.

So, of course, the resulting movie is basically INSIDIOUS: WINCHESTER MYSTERY HOUSE. Directed and co-written by twin Australian siblings Michael and Peter Spierig, who first made their mark with the 2003 micro-budget zombie indie UNDEAD, followed by 2010's stylish vampire film DAYBREAKERS, 2015's acclaimed PREDESTINATION, and last year's SAW reboot JIGSAW, WINCHESTER benefits from some terrific production and set design, utilizing a few San Jose exteriors but largely recreating large portions of the Winchester house on sets in Australia. They also secured a ringer with the legendary Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester, instantly giving an incalculable amount of class and credibility to a mostly rote, predictable, and by-the-numbers Blumhouse-era horror programmer that requires very little strain or effort on her part. In the 1960s, this sort of project would be Mirren's foray into the post-WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? "horror hag" subgenre that carved a lucrative niche for Hollywood greats like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Olivia de Havilland after they hit their 50s and the studios had little else to offer them. In April 1906, Mrs. Winchester is being evaluated by visiting Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a widower and hard-drinking laudanum addict hired by the Winchester board of directors in the hopes that he'll declare her insane and allow them to seize complete control of the company. Mrs. Winchester lives with her niece Marion Marriott (PREDESTINATION's Sarah Snook), a young widow with a seven-year-old son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey, a front-runner for 2018's Best Newcomer Name), who's still troubled by his father's death and prone to putting a potato sack on his head and sleepwalking through the labyrinthine house.

Mrs. Winchester believes the house is cursed and doesn't care what Dr. Price thinks. It doesn't take him long to turn into a believer thanks to various ghosts and scary faces jump-scaring into the frame and the fact that young Henry is clearly possessed, often displaying milky white eyes and trying to shotgun blast his great aunt at one point. It's here where the "inspired by true events" takes hold, as the rest of the film just takes a standard-issue possession/haunting story and dumps it into the Winchester house. Some of its early jolts are nicely-done (especially the first one, where the Spierigs delay the jump-scare well past the point of when a trained viewer expects it), but they soon grow loud and repetitive, jettisoning any sense of THE HAUNTING or THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE subtlety that the film's very 1970s title card might've suggested. The third act devolves into chaos and confusion as Price and Mrs. Winchester barricade themselves in an attic to hold off an onslaught of the ghosts of Winchester victims who've escaped from their boarded-up rooms in the house. It's hardly Mirren's finest moment when she goes milky-eyed and starts talking in a demon voice while malevolent spirits hurl her against the wall, but maybe she thought doing a junky horror movie would be a fun change-of-pace. At the end of the day, WINCHESTER isn't bad. It's well-made, the sets are meticulously-detailed, and Mirren, Clarke, and Snook are all quite good (ROAD WARRIOR fans will also like seeing Bruce Spence--aka The Gyro Captain--in a prominent supporting role as the Mrs. Winchester's chief butler), but you've seen it all before, and the allegorical allusions to today's gun control debate seem clumsy and ham-fisted.

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