This Is a Movie Review: ‘Winchester’ Fails to Explore Its Premise by Visiting Very Few Rooms in Its Vast Haunted Mansion

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Ben King/CBS Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Scicluna O’Prey, Angus Sampson, Eamon Farren

Directors: Peter and Michael Spierig

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Gunfire, Creepy Contact Lenses, and a Very PG-13 Moment of Nighttime Companionship

Release Date: February 2, 2018

When a truly original idea arrives in horror, you’ve got to hold on to it tight. Winchester has quite a unique and intriguing premise, but you would not be able to tell from the execution. Inspired by true events, it is a haunted house tale that takes place in, as one character adroitly puts it, “a house under neverending construction built on the orders of a grieving widow.” But the film never takes full advantage of all that lurks within the title abode.

Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren, fully embodying gothic haute couture) is the heiress to her late husband’s eponymous arms company, and Winchester’s plot is set in motion when Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is asked to evaluate her mental fitness and therefore capability to continue overseeing the company. Her fellow executives and shareholders have their doubts because of her obsession with endlessly adding more rooms to her mansion, which she is doing to contain the spirits of the many haunted souls who have been killed by Winchester firearms.

There is a perfect opportunity with this setup for a face-off between skepticism and belief in the supernatural. But instead, the existence of the ghosts is pretty much never in question, and no character expresses significant skepticism (nor indeed do they have any reason to). That is not necessarily a big loss, though, as the house itself allows plenty of opportunities no matter what the status of the ghosts. With construction having no master plan or endpoint, the mansion could be the most disorienting maze ever. But the film barely takes advantage of that spatial horror.

I do not mean to tell Winchester what sort of film it must be, but I do mean to express disappointment when what it chooses to be is so indistinct. Forgoing the more challenging haunts that it hints at, it instead is a run-of-the-mill possession and revenge story, with Sarah’s great nephew (Finn Scicluna O’Prey) doing his best creepy kid performance, rendering “Beautiful Dreamer” the stuff of nightmares. He is being influenced by the ghost of a Civil War veteran (Eamon Farren) who is predictably defeated in a final standoff, and then everyone moves on with their lives, the evil contained, for now at least.

Directors Michael and Peter Spierig (who previously worked with Winchester’s Sarah Snook on the twisty, heady Robert Heinlein adaptation Predestination) have a few tricks up their sleeve, holding on a shot just long enough for it to be unnerving when an arm suddenly bursts through a previously hidden opening. But overall they never develop a firm grasp on the jump scares or the slow burns, and they do not seem to be particularly committed to either. Plus, the underlying message of what constitutes terror in this story – something about fear being only in the mind – does not jibe with what is actually happening.

Winchester is Recommended If You Like: The Woman in Black, Helen Mirren in Period Clothing

Grade: 2 out of 5 Rifles

This Is a Movie Review: Insidious: The Last Key

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Josh Stewart, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Kirk Acevedo, Bruce Davison, Javier Botet

Director: Adam Robitel

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Physical and Supernatural Abuse

Release Date: January 5, 2018

It’s taken four tries, but the Insidious franchise has finally figured out to focus an entire film on its best character. Before 2011, Lin Shaye was perhaps best known for her appearances in Farrelly brothers comedies (especially There’s Something About Mary), though she did have significant horror experience, with small but memorable roles in the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. But then at the age of 67, she sauntered in as demonologist Elise Rainier, so sweet and loving but also so tapped into the darkness of the world – simply put, the role of a lifetime.

Alas, the first Insidious film ends with Elise’s death. Thankfully, however, this is the rare horror franchise resurrects its hero instead of its villain for the sequels. The series’ supernatural time-bending elements allowed her for her appearance in part 2, while the third and fourth entries have gone the prequel route. Chapter 3 introduced a new family into the series and allowed Shaye to take over as the lead about halfway through, while The Last Key wisely opts to put her front and center right from the start. I went into this film expecting to once again be in awe of Shaye, and that is exactly what happened.

The Last Key does in fact once again introduce a new family, but this time it is Elise’s own. She is called to investigate disturbances occurring in the house she grew up in Five Keys, New Mexico. The town name matches up with the m.o. of the film’s main demon in a manner that is a bit on-the-nose, but weird enough to be forgivable. Elise has been trying to forget this place ever since the horrible abuse her father laid upon her for violently disapproving of her supernatural skill set. It turns out that this house has been the locus of a cycle of abuse at the nexus of evil spirits and evil men. Could it be that the worst of humanity are just minions of the most insidious demons? Or is that already terrible people are the most susceptible to devilish manipulation? Or somewhere in between?

The Last Key employs several clever feints about what is ghostly and what is corporeal, playing around with our perceptions and those of Elise. At one point, our favorite demonologist explicitly states, “There are plenty of demons in this world who are very much alive.” Elise in many ways is psychologically equipped to deal with the most banal as well as the most fantastical forms of evil. I imagine there is a theoretical version of an Insidious film devoid of any ghosts or demons. It is perfectly fine that The Last Key is not that, but it is disappointing that it is ultimately about a rescue mission in The Further (the series’ supernatural realm), just like any other Insidious film.

The Last Key does not come anywhere close to establishing a new horror paradigm the way the first one did, but there are several small pleasures spread throughout in addition to Shaye’s expected excellence. The character design continues to be strikingly unique, with the main baddie having keys for fingers that he uses to bodily penetrate his human marks. He is played by Javier Botet, who has Marfan syndrome, giving him long and fine fingers that he has utilized for a fruitful career as supernatural creatures. The audio mix is just as memorable, though more discomforting. A whistle is frequently employed to indicate impending doom, which is a fun trick, but it is frequently so high-pitched that those with sensitive ears would be wise to wear muffs.

And of course I cannot conclude without mentioning Elise’s wacky assistants, who also get their most screen time yet in the series and successfully avoid being too much of a good thing: the nerdy, adorably awkward Specs (Leigh Whannell, who has written all four films and directed the third) and the deep-voiced, intense but harmless tinkerer Tucker (Angus Sampson). Ultimately, each Insidious film is about the power of family, and sometimes that family takes the form of the business partnership/close friendship between a seventysomething psychic and her two young male associates.

Insidious: The Last Key is Recommended If You Like: Septuagenarian Scream Queens, Horror Movies That Are More Heartwarming Than Scary

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Psychics and Sidekicks