THE RIFLE COWER
Director: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Screenplay: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Starring: Helen Mirren, Sarah Snook, Jason Clarke
Review: David Stephens
Haunted house movies are a staple diet for any devoted genre fan, but it only takes a “based on a true story” strapline or a real-life location to give the story that extra frisson. The most obvious example of this is the original “The Amityville Horror” (1979) which busted box-offices with its promise that the events actually happened. That worked a treat whatever your view of the Lutz family ordeal is. Other films like “The Conjuring” movies and “The Haunting in Connecticut” also benefit from that element of truth (no matter how fleeting). So it shouldn’t be a surprise that a film based around the famous Winchester house would eventually happen. Sometimes called “the most haunted house in America”, the bizarre mansion is real and is found in San Jose, California. “Winchester” is directed by the Spierig Brothers (Michael & Peter), who use its genuine history to inspire a gothic ghost tale. Starring the great Helen Mirren in her first out-&-out horror role, the movie is now in cinemas in the UK and US. So YGROY hopes it’s “gunner” be good…
It starts in 1906 with a black-veiled figure wandering the rambling Winchester house, when a young boy living in the mansion goes glassy eyed and intones that; “He is coming”. Cue San Francisco and Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is living a bohemian lifestyle, getting stoned on laudanum and making whoopee with ladies-of-the-night. An executive member of the Winchester Rifle Company turns up on his doorstep and engages the disgraced Doc to perform a medical assessment on Sarah Winchester (Mirren). The eccentric widow owns the majority share of the prosperous gun-manufacturing business after the death of her husband 25 years ago, but has since spent her life building up her mansion into a 100-room folly with eternal construction work. Looking to bump her out of the company, Price is compelled to judge her to be lacking the requisite number of marbles by the company representative. So, stopping only to pack his emotional baggage, Price sets out for the Winchester House and meets with the widow. But soon, what he sees and experiences draws him into a supernatural world that he once refused to acknowledge…
The film is subtitled “The House that Ghosts Built” (that’s not used in the credits BTW), which is probably there to ensure fans of the “Supernatural” TV series don’t buy a ticket under false pretences, or maybe “Shaun of the Dead” fans thinking it’s a pub-based prequel to the zombedy. Because (perhaps unfortunately) the film does not contain see-through versions of brick-layers or carpenters floating around with spectral hammers. Although a zombie-faced “Bob the Builder” might’ve been an interesting addition, because this is pretty generic stuff in all honesty. Not necessarily bad (or at least not as bad as some scathing reviews portray it). But it’s just below the expectations you might have for a period gothic ghost story starring such a great actress…
Starting with the positives, the film does look great and has tons of atmosphere. Rather refreshingly, the Winchester house isn’t a cob-webby deserted spook-house. It has servants and workers bustling around the building for the most part, making it an atypical haunted house. The locations veer convincingly from San Jose, California (the real site of the house) and Australia. When the interior of the building is used, it almost becomes a character unto itself, with needlessly winding staircases to nowhere and doorways hidden in cupboards. It “feels” like a building with secrets and a hidden side. The gothic period element is also represented well, with the cameo by San Francisco and the wind-up telephones and other paraphernalia. The touches of IRL are also appreciated, especially in the way that Sarah’s motives for the endless construction are gradually revealed, which is pretty much on the money according to several historians.
Mirren is also a huge asset to the story. Always stately and oozing compassion (which is essential to the plot), it’s essentially her first real horror role, although she flirted with it in previous films like “Teaching Mrs Tingle” (1999) and “The Hawk” (1993). Although when the script calls for her to speak lines like; “This spirit has a power I’ve not seen before” or sternly telling spectres to “Go back to your rooms!”, you get the impression that she’s not quite as comfortable with the genre as she is with her normal drama or recent action-movie roles.
So far so good, but when we get to the blatant genre ingredients it does feel a little generic and clichéd, away from the real-life trappings. We have; spooky kids with bags on their heads, pale-faced white-eyed ghouls appearing from nowhere, and even a dark cellar with a blazing heater. The jump-scares (some of which have been inevitably spoiled by trailers and TV spots) are well-telegraphed and unlikely to make anyone flinch. In fact, the one scene that does create some genuinely disturbing tension is down to earthly danger, albeit with supernatural encouragement.
Apart from Doc Price and Sarah, the other characters are pretty thinly drawn, which wastes some of the cast like Sarah Snook (so good in “Predestination” and “Jessabelle”) and Angus Sampson (the “Insidious” movies). Clarke gets some mileage with his role, especially in the beginning when he’s a mumbling addict, given to writing off his visions as withdrawal. It actually comes as something of a disappointment when he gradually changes into the usual reluctant-hero-looking-for-redemption persona. However, the way in which his link to the Winchester “Curse” is revealed is either quite clever or annoyingly trite depending on your mood at the viewing. We actually thought it fitted quite well, although the schmaltz is laid on quite a bit thick. In fact the themes of redemption and letting-the-past-go are hammered into your head with a little too much gusto. We get it. Guilt and anger bad. Forgiveness and acceptance good.
By the time the story goes full-“Poltergeist” it feels a little bombastic after the fairly low-key chills, but it does give the film a chance to let Mirren chew the script properly and provide some neat images along the way. The average genre fan probably won’t leave fully satisfied (it is a restrained PG-13 film after all), but it’s not that bad and at least it does something interesting with the source material and concept. It certainly won’t make you leap from your seat or ruin your underwear, but you can appreciate the contribution from Mirren and the way the narrative has been pulled together, along with the stylishly realised sets and locations. Not a sure-fire hit and could have been a lot better, but there are certainly worst ghost films to shoot down…