Friday, February 2, 2018

"Winchester" is a Worthwhile Visit

I lived in San Jose, California for five years and when I drove to the grocery store I would see the Winchester Mystery House. This infamous house with its history of ghosts and madness stood just a few blocks from my house! I've been on the tours many times, walking the weird corridors, dark rooms, and even the cold basement – and love taking visitors there, especially for the candlelit tours in complete darkness. Naturally when I heard there was a movie starring Helen Mirren, I was positively giddy.

Thankfully, WINCHESTER did not completely disappoint me. It melded the house's historical elements (as told by the docent's carefully crafted scripts) with an (another?) original story that conjures up some pretty solid scares. The first act gets straight to the point with ghosts but panders to the audience with one too many jump scares. Once the movie settles into the second act, it shifts gears and slows to build the greater mysteries. Then the third act amps up the action but stumbles a bit instead of hitting us with both barrels. Much like the house itself, the posturing is classic and ornate but yields few terrifying surprises, and at the very center is a message that seems to contradict itself in the last few moments (the remedy for violence is more violence). Regardless, I still found it eerily entertaining, beautifully realized with a rich, jeweled atmosphere, and substantial without being pretentious.

Truth be told, I would have preferred a more sophisticated take on the Winchester house but realize there's an intended audience here. At the center of this movie is Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester who commands every second of screen time (even though we don't dig deeper into her psyche). Jason Clarke does a marvelous job of holding his own as the drug-addled doctor sent to assess Sarah's mental health. Both add needed gravitas to the film and show how good actors can elevate simple material. I could have easily watched Helen talk about windows treatments and her choice of doorknobs for another half-hour.

For those unfamiliar with the charm and perplexing history of the Winchester house, the movie may be an appetizing morsel but not thoroughly satisfying (which may lead to more people visiting the house). I also wonder if it will even resonate with viewers who don't have an emotional attachment to the house like I do. Still, one of the strangest things about the house (and even the movie!) is that once inside its walls, you don't want to leave.

by Daniel Danger

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