Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Mysteries Of Sarah

Year: 2018
Director: The Spierig Brothers
Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Angus Sampson
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The Winchester Mystery House is probably the most interesting, strange landmark in America to date. A seven-story maze of halls with staircases that led to nowhere and doorways that open onto ten foot drops that was under construction 24 hours a day, it's the kind of tourist trap that's both of architectural and paranormal interest. Any way you slice it, it's the perfect place to set a movie, and it's astonishing it has taken the world this long. What's even more astonishing is that the Winchester estate chose to make their big screen debut with this myopic dud.

The presence of Helen Mirren certainly must have helped, but why would SHE choose to be here? This film is just like the house itself, an enigma wrapped in a mystery.

The plot of Winchester is barbarically simple. The lawyers at the Winchester Repeating Arms company are "worried" that the majority shareholder Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) - who has become a recluse in her ever-expanding sprawl of a mansion, believing herself to be haunted by the spirits of every person ever killed by a Winchester rifle - is too mentally unsound to run the company. They hire hallucinogenic-addicted, grief-riddled psychologist Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess her mental state and see if they can have her shares taken away from her.

I daresay it doesn't even count as a spoiler to tell you that she sure as sh*t ain't crazy. The house is riddled with ghosts, who spook Dr. Price to no end in a variety of mostly disconnected little vignettes until the Big Bad ghost reveals itself, whereupon this turns into a Conjuring rip-off starring Helen Mirren as Lin Shaye from Insidious. Bada bing, bada boom.

This is probably the only place in the world where tourism would actually increase after you make a horror movie about it.

I gotta hand it to the screenwriters here, they really did find a way to linguistically capture all the false starts and dead-ends that make up the twisted passageways of the Winchester house. The screenplay sets up so many threads that are either completely forgotten (like the good doctor's addiction to laudanum, which is completely dropped by the halfway point - though I really don't mind because there's nothing I like less than a "what's fantasy and what's reality?" theme in a movie where CGI ghosts are f**king people up) or hastily wrapped up in the turgid, busy finale.

And I shan't spoil things, if you somehow have such poor reading comprehension that you reach the end of this review and still want to check the movie for yourself. But let's just say that the final twenty-five minutes are some of the most exhausting horror movie boilerplate I've ever seen, erratically leaping from using well-worn tropes to paper over gaping plot holes to just pulling contradictory nonsense out of its ass in a weak, aching attempt to keep viewers invested. And the manner in which the Big Bad is vanquished is so laughably dumb, it'll remain in my quiver of awful movie scenes to discuss at parties for years to come.

You know what, I actually kind of like this screenshot. But don't be fooled into thinking it represents anything consistent or valuable about the movie.

The most astounding accomplishment of Winchester is that it achieves something I would have thought objectively impossible: it makes the Winchester Mystery House seem boring and bland. The bizarre geography and haphazard interiors should have provided at least an iota of interest and tension. Paranormal movie thrive on the inexplicable, and this house should have provided plenty of fuel to power a sense of menace, even if the ghosts weren't really providing (which they aren't, as the movie forces them through the hoops of a desperately generic haunting before undermining that with a revelation that just makes everything that came before confusing).

But no, this sprawling pile is rendered flat and lifeless by dull lighting that reduces it to a hazy gray background object, and a jagged editing style that refuses to connect any single room with another and make it all seem like a consistent structure. It's incoherent, but not in a way that highlights the natural incoherence of the structure. It bristles against every scrap of interest at every possible opportunity, plopping every scene into a jumbled pile that doesn't comment on any other in any meaningful way.

Just look at that... curtain? It's so... weird? Maybe?

But what of Helen Mirren, you ask? Well, she's certainly in the movie. And she probably had a lot of fun, but that certainly doesn't show here. It's not that she's not trying, but she's not pushed to do much of anything except sit still and stare gravely. The only way she could have saved the movie is if she milked the role of a reclusive, eccentric widow for all it was worth, making everything as big and purely camp as possible. By actually trying to do something realistic with her role, she recuses herself from that responsibility and tragically fades into the harried hash of a screenplay.

As for everyone else in the film, I could hardly pay them the compliment of saying they're even present. An actor I really like, the Aussie hulk Angus Sampson, has a scene or two and I'm happy to see him, but he might as well be the wallpaper. Scratch that, the wallpaper in the Winchester house would actually be interesting. And the de facto lead Jason Clarke can't justify the litany of Obviously Idiotic Horror Movie Character decisions he must make. 

At the end of the day, Winchester is an insult to the idea of the Mystery House, actively railing against the gargantuan promise and failing to do justice to a real life story that is loads more interesting than the rote, creaking ghost story told here.

TL;DR: Winchester is a major disappointment, wasting the incredible potential of a truly great setting and true story.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1019


  1. Damn, that's a shame. I actually thought this might wind up a diamond in the rough. Helen Mirren, for goodness' sake! Not to mention the Spierigs, who made Predestination, which is wonderful (and, well, Daybreakers, which has... really good world-building. And Ethan Hawke and Sam Neill and Willem Defoe. It's good too, I'll admit it.) I suppose Jigsaw probably isn't good (did I mention I bought all the Saw movies? they only cost like ten bucks!), but I'll no doubt watch it eventually, and I may even like it, inasmuch as I don't hate the Saw movies, possibly in part because I've only seen two of them.

    Anyway, I didn't even realize Winchester was set in the Winchester House, either (the name didn't ring any bells until you described it, and I realized I'd read about it twenty-five years ago). Pity they wasted such a cool real-life setting.

    1. Yeah, the Saw movies are dirt cheap nowadays, which I guess speaks to how sharply their cultural capital fell off when the 2010's started.

      And I guess the Winchester House holds much more of a thrall over California residents, because it's incredibly famous here. It's just sitting right up there, being all weird.