Tuesday 6 February 2018


Hell On Mirren

2018 Australia/USA
Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig
UK cinema release print.

Winchester is a new film based on the unusual, perpetually built and rebuilt house constructed by Sarah Winchester, the widow of the man behind the Winchester rifle. It is best known as one of the most haunted houses ever... at least that’s the modern myth surrounding the ‘Winchester Mystery House’, as it’s more popularly known... and that might explain why it has been the subject of many different art forms over the years including other films, books, comics, TV shows and video games.

Indeed, the last movie I saw based on this particular urban myth (if you prefer to see it as such) was the utterly dreadful beyond belief (sliding into incompetency, I thought) The Haunting Of Winchester House... which I reviewed here. I can, quite honestly, say that this current cinema release is a way more positive viewing experience than what that previous film turned out to be.

Winchester stars Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester, Sarah Snook and Jason Clarke as the central protagonist Dr. Eric Price. Dr. Price is a psychiatrist who is hired by the Winchester company to stay in the house with the remaining family for a period, carry out an observation and declare Sarah Winchester ‘unfit’ to remain in power there. However, as the film runs it’s course and we find out just who has cherry picked him for this job and, more importantly... why, then the real agenda behind the job offer becomes clearer.

Dr. Price takes the job as he is heavily in debt... when we first see him he is entertaining three escorts at his large house while they are all tripped out on Laudanum... and the job will pay double what he owes to various establishments. We also learn, through the course of the film that he is carrying on like this to try and get over the violent death of his wife and, although he doesn’t know it yet, he will certainly find some kind of solution at the famous, constantly shifting mansion.

I have to say that this film surprised me in that it was quite effective. The reason that surprised me was because the plot of the film is completely cliché ridden and the dialogue is so awful that you certainly need actors of the kind of calibre of Mirren, Clarke and Snook to help give it some kind of life and make it all sound credible for the few moments when said dialogue hangs in the air out of their mouths. However, the film is so well directed and so great at the timing of the scares that it turns out the execution completely saves this movie and is very entertaining/terrifying in certain places.

One of those clichés, of course, is to throw in the good doctor’s fondness for abusing his little bottle of Laudanum as it’s so obviously a trick to allow the character to play along with the scares in the early stages of the film without feeling the need to affect any change in his circumstances. That is to say, the man is subject to all kinds of terrifying happenings but, because he knows his perceptions of things must be somewhat changed by his poison of choice (literally poison), then he is able to pass of the various supernatural attacks as just hallucinations brought on by his drug habit and thus allow the audience more ‘horror movie foreplay’ before he realises something  a little bit ‘out there’ is going on.

Now, I saw through all this charade at audience manipulation as the cliché it was, right when I first spied the Laudanum bottle but, I have to say, that you can’t really criticize the cast and crew for falling back on this kind of writing crutch, to be honest, as the scares come thick and fast at you. Indeed, the first big jump scare, which involves a shifting mirror and which deliberately makes you complacent in the expectation of such a moment before coming out of left field where your mind was not focused... really got to the audience, I can tell you (and to me too, I’m happy to say).

So, yeah, the film does all the expected stuff you would expect from this kind of movie... the dark shadows, the POV camera work as the ghostly spirits observe the living, the locked doors and the various large furniture placed in front of the protagonists field of vision... it’s all here and it’s all quite shamelessly trotted out but... it’s also to be admired in the context of this movie, I think. It does prove to be rather effective and the directors, actors and editor all prove to be consummate professionals in their work.

The (sadly unavailable on CD at time of writing) score by Peter Spierig is also pretty much 'on the mark'. Yes, it's the usual, slow moving with added atonalism moments you might expect but, again, like the composer’s skill at directing this movie, it’s all very appropriate and effective to the job in hand.

And there’s not much more I can tell you about this one, I think. Winchester is a first class shocker and very much an old style B-movie with an A-movie cast list. If you like horror movies then you’ll probably want to check this one out. Yes, you’ve seen it all before but, rarely I suspect, have you seen it handled just so well. Certainly the best of the art pieces I’ve seen covering this phenomenon and a real treat for genre fans. Not one to miss.

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