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Friday, February 02, 2018

Winchester

Three years ago, I was fortunate enough to see Helen Mirren perform in the Broadway play, The Audience, where she portrayed Queen Elizabeth II at different stages in her life.  It was truly a wonder seeing Mirren seemingly transform herself into this woman at different ages, from her 20s, to elderly.  To this day, it stands as one of the great theatrical performances I have seen. 

I found myself thinking of that performance a lot while watching Winchester, a dragged out and deadly dull supernatural story that finds Mirren with little to do other than to wander around a spook house while dressed all in black.  She seems bored, and why shouldn't she be?  Directors and co-writers Michael and Peter Spierig obviously cast her to give their low budget horror film a touch of class, but forgot to give her a part to play.  She plays the real life Sarah Winchester, a reclusive woman who from 1884 until her death in 1922 built a sprawling and labyrinthine mansion home that she believed held the souls of the victims who were killed by the guns designed by her rifle manufacturer husband William.  She was constantly adding to the house, building more rooms to house the spirits.  The house itself (which remains a tourist attraction today) is a marvel, full of curious rooms, hidden passageways, staircases leading to dead ends, and well over 160 rooms in all.  At one point, the house stood at seven stories, but after an earthquake that hit the home in 1906, it had to be rebuilt and was never truly finished.

This is certainly a wonderful jumping off point for a truly atmospheric and creepy film, but what the Spierigs have done is given us a sluggish and exploitative film built around tedious jump scares that amount to little more than a scary face popping up either behind or in front of somebody over and over again.  For a movie like this, the scares are few and far between, and the tension practically non-existent.  The movie does try to have a sort of purpose by giving us some tragic background for some of its characters, but it doesn't amount to a whole hill of beans, because the audience never gets a chance to be invested in the story.  It's a dreary experience that seems to be told in slow motion, and performed by actors who deserve much better than what the script is giving them, and they seem to know it.  The first time Mirren enters the film, the look on her face almost seems to say, "Okay, let's get this over with".

As the film opens, noted therapist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company (which Sarah inherited control of after the death of her husband) to evaluate Sarah's mental state.  They are concerned about her obsession with ghosts and the house itself, and are hoping that Eric will find her mentally unfit to be the head of the Company.  Eric arrives at the Winchester House with a lot of personal baggage, all surrounding the death of his beloved wife Ruby (Laura Brent).  The house comes with a gloomy staff that is constantly keeping up the place as new rooms are added on a continuous basis, as well as Sarah's niece Marion (Sarah Snook), who seems concerned about her young son Henry (Finn Scicluna O'Prey), and the fact that he has recently become prone to sleepwalking and wandering the massive house in a trance in the middle of the night.

Almost as soon as he arrives, Eric is plagued with spooky visions of ghostly faces appearing in mirrors or behind cracked doors and dark corners.  We learn early on that Eric is addicted to opium, and there is a small part of the film devoted to the notion that perhaps these visions are drug-related, but very little is done with it.  He is quick to believe Sarah's story that the Winchester family is cursed, and that there is an evil force within the house that wants revenge on her and the entire family.  Of course, Eric soon learns that he has a connection to the house as well, and it doesn't take long before Marion's little boy is walking the halls possessed by a malevolent force.  Instead of building to anything truly meaningful or frightening, the movie just throws a lot of random images of decaying corpse faces, and hopes that we will jump out of shock.  But we don't, because the scares are far too easy to predict.

Winchester is stock, trite and predictable.  It never seems to be going anywhere, and it doesn't even make very good use out of its unique setting.  Oh, the house itself looks fine (all of the sets are replicas of the actual rooms in the house), but the movie doesn't take advantage of the stranger aspects of it as much as it should.  The pacing and tone are also completely off.  Instead of building tension or a sense of dread, the movie plods along with boring dialogue scenes between Eric and Sarah, where the actors seem to know they're too good for this material.  And when it does try to be scary, it falls back on tricks that are rehashed from other movies, and not successfully.  This is a movie that holds so little interest and passion, you have to wonder what the actors did in order to amuse themselves on the set.

I would love to see Helen Mirren try her hand at the horror genre again, preferably in a role that allows her to play an active part in the story, and not just dress her up in a black veil and gown and have her talk to ghosts.  If you're going to spend the bucks to hire her, you might as well use her to the best of her ability.  Just sayin'. 

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