Written and Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig
Regular readers of Dread Central may know that in the lead up to the release of Winchester, I was given an unprecedented opportunity to explore the actual setting of this supernatural, historical horror movie. In advance of my paranormal investigation, I did some research on the true story of Sarah Winchester and her sprawling mansion in San Jose, CA. As such, I feel I am both uniquely qualified and simultaneously unfit to give this film a truly unbiased review.
Inevitably, I balanced two aspects of the film: Its adherence to the actual events the film is based on and its success as a straight-up horror movie. And since those seeing Winchester will no doubt be a mix of people familiar with the historical folklore and those who have never heard of the elusive heiress before the film, it will likely resonate differently with different groups.
Don’t worry; I’m not planning on turning this review into a list of historical inaccuracies. Sure, the film is stuffed with them, but historians actually know precious little about Sarah Winchester’s day-to-day life at the mansion. That’s one of her intriguing paradoxes: She valued privacy and isolation above all else; yet, she built a mansion that made her the center of attention for her entire community. The famous picture of Sarah Winchester in a horse-drawn carriage is the only known photograph of the woman who became a living oddity and a continuing source of curiosity.
So, we can’t fault the Spierig brothers for relying heavily on speculation when it comes to the daily life of Sarah Winchester. While there were many who probably considered the heiress a kook, the film is actually glowing in its portrayal of the tortured widow. That’s an understatement, now that I think about it! Mirren’s Winchester is practically a superhero, a paranormal heavyweight on par with Elise Rainier (played by Lin Shaye) in the Insidious franchise. Whether you dig this far-out portrayal or find it too over-the-top probably depends on your expectation going into the film.
Jason Clarke plays Dr. Eric Price, a fitting name for a character admittedly motivated by money. He’s a washed up, drug-addled, prostitute-patronizing psychologist hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to assess Sarah’s sanity (specifically as it pertains to the heiress’ ability to maintain a controlling interest in the profitable outfit). He’s both totally unqualified and uniquely suited to the task, which we come to understand as the character’s backstory is slowly revealed.
The producers of Winchester could have gone a couple of different ways when deciding how to tell this story. It could have been a psychological story, one that left uncertain whether Sarah Winchester was literally haunted by ghosts or figuratively haunted by sorrow, guilt, and regret. On the other hand, it could be a straight-up haunted house story with the “Based on a True Story” tagline slapped on for good measure. Similarly, producers had a variety of options regarding how to best portray Sarah Winchester in film; she could have been a nut-job or a sage.
The Spierigs deliver a film that goes for screams over subtext, sporting no fewer than 12 jump scares. The PG-13 rating, however, is a bit of a barrier, as it prevents the presentation of truly ghastly apparitions. The result is a damn fine haunted house story on par with The Haunting in Connecticut; Winchester is most likely to disappoint those with an existing fascination with Sarah Winchester and her mysterious house.
A point the film tries to make but fails to hammer home is that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if visitors to the Winchester Mansion believe in ghosts; all that matters is Sarah’s belief, which was both unshakable and infectious. Having been to the Winchester Mansion recently, I can attest to the location’s ability to elicit powerful, haunting sensations. You can be the biggest skeptic on the planet, but the house is Sarah Winchester’s domain, a manifestation of her tortured psyche. And since the heiress was unable to pacify the spirits that became her obsession, then the house is, objectively, haunted.
I’m a huge fan of supernatural horror, and Winchester succeeds at creating what may be the first California Gothic in genre history. There’s plenty of cool stuff to look at, and Mirren is amazing—exactly as we’d expect her to be. It’s a big improvement over the Spierig brothers’ last effort, 2017’s Jigsaw, but I feel like we’re still waiting for the filmmaking duo to truly knock one out of the park.
Winchester is a decent haunted house horror movie on par with The Haunting in Connecticut. Its PG-13 rating and boatload of jump scares probably mean the film will resonate more with younger genre fans. While it’s not the accurate portrayal history buffs may have hoped for, Helen Mirren shines, completely upending established Woman in Black motifs.
The Housemaid Review – Love Makes the Ghost Grow Stronger
Written and directed by Derek Nguyen
Vietnamese horror films are something of a rarity due largely to pressure from the country’s law enforcement agencies that have warned filmmakers to steer clear of the genre in recent years. The country’s exposure to the industry is limited, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers out there that are passionate and determined to get their art out into the world. IFC Midnight has stepped up to the plate to shepherd writer/director Derek Nguyen’s period ghost thriller The Housemaid in hopes of getting it in front of American horror fans.
Aside from a few moments that delve into soap opera territory, Nguyen’s film is full of well-crafted scares and some surprisingly memorable scenes that sneak up at just the right times. For history buffs there’s also a lot of material to sink your teeth into dealing with French Colonial rule and mistreatment of the Vietnamese during the 1950’s. Abuse that, if you’re not careful, could lead to a vengeful spirit seeking atonement.
Desperate and exhausted after walking for miles, an orphaned woman named Linh (Kate) seeks refuge and employment as a housemaid at a large rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina. Once hired, she learns of the dark history surrounding the property and how her mere presence has awakened an accursed spirit that wanders the surrounding woods and dark corners of the estate. Injured in battle, French officer Sebastien Laurent (Richaud) returns to preside over the manor and, unexpectedly, begins a dangerous love affair with Linh that stirs up an even darker evil.
Told in flashbacks, the abuse of workers reveals a long history of mistreatment that enshrouds the surrounding land in darkness and despair, providing ripe ground for a sinister spirit that continues to grow stronger. Once it’s revealed that the ghost has a long history with Laurent before her death, the reasons she begins to kill become more and more obvious as the death toll piles up. Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle among Laurent, Linh, and the specter of Laurent’s dead wife.
Powered by desire to avenge tortured workers of the past and the anger fueled by seeing her husband in the embrace of a peasant girl, the apparition is frightening and eerily beautiful as she stalks her victims. One scene in particular showing her wielding an axe is the most indelible image to take away from the film, and other moments like it are what make The Housemaid a standout. The twisted sense of romance found in a suffering spirit scorned in death is the heart of the story even if the romance between the two living lovers winds up having more screen time.
The melodrama and underwhelming love scenes between Linh and Laurent are the least effective part of The Housemaid, revealing some of Nguyen’s limitations in providing dialogue and character moments that make us connect with these two characters as much as we do when the ghost is lurking around the frame. What does help to save the story is a well kept secret revealing a connection with the housemaid and the apparition.
Honestly, if this was an American genre film, the limitations seen in The Housemaid might cause more criticism, but seeing an emerging artist and his team out of Vietnam turn out a solid product like this leads me to highlight the good and champion the effort in hopes of encouraging more filmmakers to carry the flag. Ironically, the film is set for a U.S. remake in the near future.
The Housemaid hits select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms TODAY, February 16th.
Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle.
Scorched Earth Review – Gina Carano Making Motherf**kers Pay In The Apocalypse
Starring Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins
Written by Bobby Mort and Kevin Leeson
Directed by Peter Howitt
Let me preface this review by stating right off the bat that I’m a huge Gina Carano fan, and will pretty much accept her in any role that she’s put in (are you going to tell her no), regardless of the structure and plausibility behind it, and while that might make me a tad-bit biased in my opinions, just accept it as that and nothing more. Now that I’ve professed my cinematic devotion to the woman, let’s dive headlong into her latest film, Scorched Earth.
Directed by Peter Howitt, the backdrop is an apocalyptic world brought on by the imminent disaster known as global warming, and the air has become toxic to intake, generally leaving inhabitants yacking up blood and other viscous liquids after a prolonged exposure, unless you’re one of the privileged that possesses a filter lined with powdered silver. Filters of water and the precious metal are in high demand, and only true offenders in this world still drive automobiles, effectively speeding up the destruction of what’s left of the planet. Carano plays Atticus Gage, a seriously stoic and tough-as-nails bounty hunter who is responsible for taking these “criminals” down, and her travels lead her to a compound jam-packed with bounties that will have her collecting riches until the end of time…but aren’t we at the end of time already? Anyway, Gage’s main opponent here is a man by the name of Thomas Jackson (Robbins) – acting as the leader of sorts to these futuristic baddies, the situation of Gage just stepping in and taking him out becomes a bit complicated when…oh, I’m not going to pork this one up for you all – you’ve got to invest the time into it just as I did, and trust me when I tell you that the film is pretty entertaining to peep.
While Carano’s acting still needs some refining, let there be no ever-loving mistake that this woman knows how to beat the shit out of people, and for all intents and purposes this will be the thing that carries her through many a picture. There are much larger roles in the future for Gina, and she’ll more than likely take over as a very big player in the industry – hey, I’m a gambling man, and I’ve done pretty well with my powers of prognostication. With that being said, the thing that does hold this picture back is the plot itself- it’s a bit stale and not overly showy, and when I look for a villain to oppose the hero, I’m wanting someone with at least a shred of a magnetic iota, and I just couldn’t latch onto anything with Robbins’ performance – his character desperately needed an injection of “bad-assness” and it hurt in that particular instance.
In the end of it all, I’d recommend Scorched Earth to fans of directionless, slam-bang wasteland pics with a touch of unrestrained violence…plus, Gina Carano is in it, so you can’t go wrong. If you’re not a fan of any of the above, feel free to skate on along to another piece of barren territory.
Looking to get your butt kicked in the apocalypse with extreme prejudice? Drive on up, and allow me to introduce you to someone who’ll be more than happy to oblige.
The Good Friend Book Review – A Slasher Story for the Facebook Generation
Written by Marcus Sabom
I’m not usually a big fan of murder mysteries, but Marcus Sabom’s novel The Good Friend has certainly done a lot to make me reconsider my stance on the genre. Sabom, who is currently turning the book into a film, appears to have a real gift when it comes to keeping the reader on the edge of their seat
Usually, if you were told that a book contains an ensemble cast of four central characters instead of one main protagonist, you’d probably lose interest right away because we tend to connect with singular point of view characters more than we do with ensembles. However, Sabom proved me wrong in this regard, because each of the four leading women in The Good Friend were such engaging people with such real problems that I never felt like there were too many characters and plot threads to keep track of.
To give a brief overview of our four principal players, we have Sarah, who wants to be in a meaningful relationship after her asshole boyfriend dumps her, Alana, a slightly older woman stuck in a loveless marriage with a manipulative husband who tries to turn her kids against her, Megan, who has to deal with crazy stalkers, and Rita, who is traumatized by a vengeful psycho named Caleb after he attempts to belittle and humiliate her.
With this being a book set in modern times, they naturally use social media to broadcast their problems to the world. Now, we all know about the dangers of chronicling every step of our lives on social media, but Sabom takes things to a whole other level. Because after the aforementioned women post about their troubles on Faceplace (which is basically Facebook, but with a name Mark Zuckerberg can’t take legal action against), a masked killer begins to permanently put an end to their man problems. Whoever the knife-wielding psycho is, he’s clearly a mutual friend of all the women, because he obviously looks at their posts.
One of the only male characters in The Good Friend who wasn’t a complete asshole was Detective Jack Miller, a cop investigating the case of the misandrous serial killer. Miller is described as occasional leaning towards antinatalism, the belief that people should stop reproducing because the human race should not continue to exist. I’ve also always believed that human beings should stop reproducing because we are beyond saving, so I’m glad that Sabom was able to tap into an area that deserves far more open discussion rather than being a social taboo.
The book itself is just under three-hundred pages in length and uses relatively large text, so most readers will probably get through the whole thing in about three days. Whilst the prose was certainly easy to digest, there were a number of errors and typos that would be painfully obstructive to most of us, the most obvious being that it confuses the phrase ‘couldn’t care less’ with ‘could care less’, which, as you know, means the exact opposite.
However, if you’re looking for a easy to digest murder mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end, The Good Friend is certainly an ideal recommendation. At the very least, the book should teach you not to make negative posts about people on Facebook or other social media sties, because a knife-wielding killer might be looking at your status.
An easy to digest slasher story that will keep you guessing until the very end, The Good Friend serves as a perfect reminder of the darker side of social media.
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