2018, Atmospheric Movies, Based on a True Story, Cinema Knife Fights, Claustrophobic Settings, Damaged People, Dark Secrets, Family Secrets, Ghost Movies, Ghosts!, Guns, Haunted Houses, Horror Movies, Period Pieces, Supernatural 0
Cinema Knife Fight Presents:
Review by LL Soares & Dan Keohane
(THE SCENE: A huge mansion. Workmen are hammering and drilling in the background. LL SOARES and DAN KEOHANE ring the bell and are invited inside by a WOMAN, who guides them to a large study)
WOMAN: My aunt will be right with you.
LS: No rush. We’ve got all the time in the world.
(WOMAN exits, laughing quietly to herself)
DK: So why are we here again?
LS: Atmosphere! This house is a lot like the one in the new movie WINCHESTER, where Helen Mirren plays an old lady who’s constantly having builders add new rooms to her house.
DK: Because of the ghosts!
LS: That’s right. In fact, the movie was originally going to be called WINCHESTER: THE HOUSE THAT GHOSTS BUILT. I’m not sure why that changed. It was a little long, but it told us more than just plain WINCHESTER. That could be the title of anything.
DK: Funny thing is, I thought it was still called WINCHESTER: THE HOUSE THAT GHOSTS BUILT until you said that. Next, you’ll tell me it’s really called CLOVERFIELD: THE GHOST ARMY.
LS: You wish. In this movie, we meet Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a psychiatrist in the early 20th century who is addicted to laudanum, a medicine from back then that was made up of alcohol and morphine. In fact, when we first see Price, he’s high on the stuff with some ladies of the evening. We learn later that there’s a reason for his self-medicating: he’s grieving from a tragedy that shattered his life.
As the movie opens, he’s kind of a failure in his chosen field. As he puts it, he’s “on sabbatical.” A representative shows up at his door from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, who offers Price a large sum of money (that will wipe out all his debts, and then some) if he will assess the mental faculties of Sarah Winchester (Mirren), the heiress who inherited a majority stake in the Winchester company when her husband died, and is using her vast fortune to turn her house into a never-ending maze of rooms.
Price goes to Sarah’s estate, and soon is seeing strange figures who flit around the house with sinister intent. Sarah’s reason for the constant construction is so that the house will be big enough to house all of the ghosts of people who died because of the very firearms that the Winchester Company produces. Everyone thinks she’s crazy, including the men who hired Price, but Price isn’t so sure, as Sarah takes it upon herself to convince him that she is sane.
Where did that woman go? I thought she’d be back by now.
DK: (quietly) In this house there are many rooms… (shakes his head and blinks). Sorry. Maybe she got lost?
LS: Someone could have at least brought us some tea, though. I saw an army of servants when we first came in.
DK: They’re probably too busy cleaning the 100 rooms. Or their contract only calls for them to be in a certain number of scenes.
(CASPER THE GHOST wanders into the room)
CASPER: Do you want to be my friend?
LS: You again! Are you in every haunted house I visit for this column? Nobody wants to be your stupid friend. SCRAM!
CASPER: Gee, mister, you sure are mean. (Exits)
DK: Don’t you think you were a bit rough on the little guy?
LS: Not really. Back to our review.
WINCHESTER is one of those stories that is based on “actual events.” But “based on” can be a pretty broad term. There is a house like this one, in San Jose, California, and the heiress of the Winchester fortune did have numerous rooms constructed for the same reason, and there was speculation about whether or not she was crazy. But, right away, we know what this movie’s opinion will be. It is a horror movie, after all.
DK: The idea that the Winchester family is haunted by the souls of so many people killed by the weapons they have profited from is pretty cool. That, plus the grieving widow who feels she must atone for her late husband’s creation by building room after room to house the spirits. Of course, all of this is completely true. I’d seen a documentary of “the house that Winchester built” (that’s not the name) a few years ago and this is exactly why Mrs. Winchester built such an elaborate and ever-changing house.
LS: But I wish they’d done more with the idea, because the movie we have is kind of humdrum. By the second half, when the ghost activity shifts into full gear, I didn’t find the movie very scary, so that didn’t really work, either. The plot has a lot to work with, and a lot of potential, and yet it never really does much with it. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen in other haunted house movies. So, my reaction to most of the film straddled the fence of boredom. Once the real scares do start happening, they’re just not that scary.
DK: One of my biggest complaints these days is how horror filmmakers think they need to inundate every film with jump scares of the kind used here. Show the ghost but accompany it with a high-volume blast of strings from the orchestra (and, usually, an unsubtle cymbal clash). The first half of WINCHESTER was peppered with these. The thing is, the setup for most of these scares had already built plenty of suspense, so the appearance of a ghost would have been just as frightening—more so, actually—without it. You know it’s coming, and when it does, especially if it’s a flash-then-gone type, it’s scary on its own. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) seems to have popularized this technique, but it has become the Wilhelm Scream of scary movies. WINCHESTER does fairly well building tension, but these trumpet blasts from hell turn the frights into gimmicks, rather than do anything to enhance the fear for the audience. If the sound folks feel the need to startle the viewer, rather than frighten, then they need to rethink their overall shot. (As a comparison, say what you will about the movie, one aspect of 2012’s THE WOMAN IN BLACK that I appreciated was the complete absence of M. Night Strings—still working on a good term to use—yet the creep factor was high.
LS: Yeah, this movie has lots of jump scares, and that always seems like a cheat to me. And there were some things about this movie that reminded me of THE WOMAN IN BLACK, except that movie was better than this one.
DK: I thought WINCHESTER was a decent little film overall, but you’re right that, as a horror movie nothing much is done that one could truly call original or all that frightening. One thought crossed my mind leaving the theater: if this came out twenty years ago, it would probably have scared the boogers out of everyone. In 2018, everything in the film had been done many times before. That’s not to say there weren’t some definite positives to this film.
LS: Probably the film’s one saving grace for me was the acting.
DK: I was excited about Helen Mirren headlining a horror film. She wouldn’t take the role if the script was terrible, would she? She does well as the haunted Miss Havisham of the gun industry. I mean, Mirren could do a Bud Lite commercial shouting “Dillie DIllie” and be nominated for an Oscar.
LS: Yeah, I’ve been a fan of Mirren’s since the 70s when she was in movies like Lindsay Anderson’s O LUCKY MAN! (1973) and played Caesonia in CALIGULA (1979).
DK: She was in CALIGULA? I’m still afraid my Mom will catch me if I start watching that.
LS: How old are you again? Mirren’s career only shot skyward from there. She’s in one of my favorite movies from the 80s, THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER (1989), and then went on to bigger fame as DCI Jane Tennison in the BBC’s PRIME SUSPECT series.
DK: Of course, the highest point might have been her playing The Queen in THE QUEEN (2006).
LS: Yeah, she went from art films to mainstream TV to Oscar-level roles. She’s pretty much movie royalty herself at this point. So, her being one of the stars of WINCHESTER definitely adds a level of class to the film before it even begins. Of course, she does a good job in the role. It’s not one of the finest scripts she’s ever worked with, but her acting is impeccable as always.
DK: I was pleasantly surprised by Australian actor Jason Clarke as the psychiatrist Eric Price. When I saw the trailer, the two stars seemed an odd fit, but Clarke’s screen presence is strong here. It has to be, since he’s the main character and is in literally every scene. His broken, drug-addled psychiatrist is good counterpoint to the presumably-insane Sarah Winchester (though at times she seems the most stable person in the household).
LS: Yes, Clarke is very good. He’s been in a lot of very good movies over the last decade or so, including ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014). He also played John Connor in TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015). I was very impressed with his performance here, too, and he holds his own quite ably in his scenes with Dame Helen.
DK: You calling Ms. Mirren a dame? What’s this, the 1940s?
LS: She was knighted by the real Queen, you ninny. It’s the female version of “Sir.”
DK: For me, I’d hoped for more Angus Sampson (Season 2 of the FARGO TV Series) as the architect, but his role was mostly scowling at Dr. Price and following his employer around with a rifle, doubling as her bodyguard.
LS: Sarah Snook (also in PREDESTINATION, 2014, and STEVE JOBS, 2015) was also good as Sarah Winchester’s niece, Marian Marriott, and Eamon Farren (who recently played Richard Horne on the Showtime revival of TWIN PEAKS) plays a particularly violent ghost named Ben. I also liked Laura Brent in her scenes as Dr. Price’s tragic wife, Ruby.
DK: The sets inside the ever-changing house are gorgeous, though with a house of one hundred rooms, the characters seemed to often run down the same hallways. I wondered how much of what I was seeing was CGI versus constructed sets. For the outside shots, the home was just a little too clean and shiny to be real, and so my brain decided most of it was computerized add-on. Inside, however, it looked quite real. The heavy wood paneling seemed to be heavy wood paneling. If it was all real, kudos to the set designer.
LS: WINCHESTER was directed by Michael and Peter Spierig (aka, The Spierig Brothers) who also gave us the vampire movie DAYBREAKERS (2009), which was so-so, and the time travel movie PREDESTINATION (2014), which I liked a lot. The Spierig Brothers also made the new SAW reboot, JIGSAW (2017), which was mediocre (and unnecessary). They wrote the script for WINCHESTER with Tom Vaughan. The acting and the location for WINCHESTER were good, but the script left a lot to be desired, unfortunately.
DK: I’m not sure I agree about the script itself. The story was interesting, with spirits making Sarah Winchester build the rooms they were killed in (by Winchester rifles), so they can find peace, and any that do not find said peace are locked away in the room forever. Though the concept is “based” on a true story of the haunted widow, the overall flow of the story is decent. There is a bit of a twist with one character near the end, before the climactic action, which I found pleasantly surprising. Hadn’t seen it coming, though probably should have. And the explanation for the many doors with wood barricades was a pretty neat idea. There is also a Garden Room which continues to draw the attention of Dr. Price. When the nature of the room is revealed, it’s clever, I thought, and added another dimension to the motivations of a couple of the characters.
However, as I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t scared at all during this movie. It was visually pleasing and the script did keep me guessing from time to time, which I always appreciate, thank you.
LS: Who are you thanking?
DK: The writers. If you’re going to make a horror film, however, do your damnedest to make a scary film without the usual fall-back tropes, jump scares, and scary music to startle the viewer into thinking they are being frightened.
LS: Overall, I didn’t find anything very surprising or scary about the movie. I’d blame the PG-13 rating, but that would be a cop-out. While PG-13 usually means they’ve watered down the horror, and any disturbing subject matter, it doesn’t have to mean that a movie is absent of scares. I have to admit, however, considering the cool source material, I really didn’t like this one very much. I was on the fence about a rating, tempted to give it one and a half knives, but, on the strength of the acting, I’ll give it two. The presence of Mirren and Clarke make it so I can’t disregard the movie completely, but I can’t really recommend it, either. What’s your verdict, Dan?
DK: I agree about the acting, and unlike you I thought the overall script was smart. It’s the execution of the story which fell flat for me. And jump scares have become far too silly and trope-ish for anyone over fifteen, and the scares—here I agree with you—don’t go far enough. Honestly, if the filmmakers aren’t scaring themselves, they aren’t going to scare an audience, and WINCHESTER: NO LONGER WITH A SUBTITLE too often in this department seems to be going through the motions, or following a path so well-trodden it’s a trench. Oddly enough, I give it two knives as well, because, in the end, a horror movie is supposed to be scary. This movie is interesting, and well acted, but not very scary.
LS: Well, what do we do now? We’re done with the review.
DK: You don’t think that lady who let us in is coming back?
LS: I doubt it. Let’s get out of here.
(They go out into the hall, where there are four different passageways they can follow)
DK: Which way now?
LS: I have no idea.
DK: There’s a trail of blood leading down that one, want to try that direction?
LS: You serious?
DK: Sorry, I’m new at this.
(Suddenly a bunch of evil-looking GHOSTS emerge from the walls, surrounding them)
GHOST #1 – Defilers! You will never leave this house alive!
CASPER (in the corner): I bet you wish I was your friend now.
© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares & Daniel G. Keohane
LL Soares gives WINCHESTER ~ two knives.
Dan Keohane gives WINCHESTER ~ two knives, too.