Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How To Make An Extremely Mediocre Horror Movie

A few weeks ago, we saw Winchester, the horror film starting Helen Mirren about the Winchester Mystery House.

For those who are not familiar, the Winchester Mystery House is a real-life weird thing. The widow (and majority owner) of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Sarah Winchester, had an infant daughter die, and  upon consulting with a medium, was told that in order to appease the spirits of those how have died by the arms her husband (and now her) sold, she had to continually build. As in perform constant, 24-hour-a-day construction on the house she owned. As such, she moved out West to California, where for the next few decades the mansion was under constant construction, remodeling, and experimentation. The result is a fascinating building, where doors lead nowhere, stairs spiral needlessly around, and rooms make little architectural sense.

(For the record, while the reason why this happened is probably apocryphal, the construction actually did happen. The theories are pretty much either the spiritualist one listed above, or that she just had money to burn being an armchair architect. Obviously the estate plays up the former, since spooks who are in league with the local construction worker's guild is a better story.)

For the movie, instead of telling the incredibly fascinating real-life story, they chose instead to go with a rather mundane straight retelling of the story involving ghosts.

They did take the above foundation as the starting point. They did, also, come up with a reasonably interesting take on it--the constant rebuilding was that, in order to appease the ghosts, they had to recreate the room in the room of their death, and then sealed. They did also build on the real-time obsessions of Sarah Winchester, such as the number 13.They even come up with a framing device--a doctor who visits to evaluate her mental state on behalf of the Winchester board of directors--that sounds like it could go in interesting directions.(My wife and I toured the place when we went out to California last year.)

Sadly, the movie makes none of this interesting.

First off, it relies on cheap jump scares. Jump scares can be effective, even if they aren't very creative, but in this case they just seem out of place. The first few times it happens--when the doctor is looking in a mirror--it's in a scene with no tension, no buildup, and no creepiness. It just sort of happens with no reason.

The character of Sarah Winchester is clinical. Helen Mirren does the best she can with the material, but it goes nowhere. We don't feel sympathy for her. We're not sure if she's supposed to be cold and calculating, or have a hidden agenda, or worthy of emotional investment. Instead, she disjointedly comes across as simultaneously abrasive and then thoughtful. When the doctor first interviews her as part of his examination, the exchange is combative--but it turns out there's no particular reason for this to be the case, because they are ultimately on the same side, and, it's quickly revealed, she invited him to be there because of his background. And when the shit starts to hit the fan, she gets into action right away--and presumably with no help that required the doctor to travel halfway across the country to pull off.

Add to this the weird relationship with the relatives living in the house--are we supposed to hate them? Root for them? We don't know, because the information presented doesn't connect.

And when the "big bad" finally shows up--so what? The previous times he had been shown, it's without importance or interest. He's a secondary character of no consequence, so when the reveal happens there's no emotional resonance. And when we have what is presumably the film's climax with regard to the doctor--again, the information we've been given so far is far too inadequate to car about its resolution.

This was an extremely frustrating movie to watch, because all of the elements were there. It had the needed characters. It took good stuff from the real-life story and filled in the rest with perfectly reasonable fiction. The actors involved were top-notch. But the whole thing just doesn't work.  Every single scene and line of dialogue in the movie feels like it was written independently of each other, and then someone ordered them all together, and then someone was brought in to paste the whole things together with jump scares and poor lighting.

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