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Entries in Haunting of Winchester House [2009] (1)


Haunting of Winchester House (2009)

Stand Here, Look Scared

My friend Karen recommended that I check out “the worst movie of 2009”, Haunting of Winchester House.  The term “worst movie” means different things to different people.  For me, one of the worst movies of 2009 was Avatar; and one of the best I saw that year was The Room—even though it came out a few years earlier, and is not a good film by anyone’s calculation.  The lesson here is that mainstream movies with huge budgets and talented stars can be boring wastes of time, while a low-budget indie put together by a vaguely European nutcase who fancies himself and auteur can be so bad in every definable way as to expand one’s consciousness and also produce soul-screaming belly laughs (the worst, though, is a low-budget indie that’s as boring as the blockbusters, where there’s nothing to latch onto, and criticism feels as pointless as the movie itself).

To belabor this pseudo-disclaimer, I should remind you that my blu-ray collection is stocked not just with classics by Kubrick, Fincher, and Peckinpah, but also with titles such as The Happening, The Wicker Man (Nicolas Cage version), and Hannah Montana: The Movie.  So when I talk about loving the worst of the worst movies, know that I’m high-def-committed.

So where does Haunting of Winchester House fit in?  It’s pretty amazing.  I’m tempted to call it The Room of horror movies, but I just saw it yesterday and that’s quite an Olympian bar.  As a testament to the four-car-pileup delights of writer/director Mark Atkins’ ghost story, it took me a hundred minutes to get through an eighty-five-minute movie.  Thanks to Netflix Instant Play (no pimping here, just gratitude), I was able to back-track every few minutes to make sure I hadn’t just imagined the craziest, lamest dialogue and CG effects shots in recent memory.

The movie stars Michael Holmes and Lira Kellerman as Drake and Susan Grenier.  They’re a hip, young couple who have a daughter named Haley (Patty Roberts), who is somewhere between the ages of eight and sixteen (she looks to be way past puberty, but how many high schoolers yell, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” when they get scared—not counting the stars of MTV’s Teen Mom or My Super Sweet 16).  The Greniers move into a grand estate in the middle of nowhere called Winchester House.  It’s unclear why they choose to live there, especially since they’ve obviously never seen the place before.  It’s also obvious that doofus husband Drake has zero standards and has never watched a home-makeover show: On first seeing the tiny, dirty kitchen, he says, “Wow” with amazement, and not the horrified irony one would expect from a guy with that haircut.

Right off the bat, we can see that there’s something wrong with Winchester House—and I’m not even talking about ghosts yet.  All around the property, we see gold placards which read, “Winchester House” or “Private”; I guess this is supposed to show the property’s regal history, but really it just highlights the lack of budget, and the fact that the director assumed everyone watching would accept flimsy, mustard-colored cardboard with flat, black, Impact-font text as opulent, turn-of-the-century signage.  Before we even see these signs, though, we get a couple of hero shots of the house, which is clearly a horribly composited computer model of a spooky mansion.  In the wide shot where the family approaches Winchester House, you can actually see Drake’s shirt disappear into the digital matte.

The Greniers soon discover that the grounds are haunted by the ghosts of everyone who’s ever been killed by a Winchester rifle (which is weird, because I thought for sure those things would’ve taken out more than six people between 1873 and 2009, but whatever).  Shadowy figures with blown-off faces stalk them; a deformed devil-baby claws at Susan’s bed sheets; a pissed off Sarah Winchester (Kimberly Ables Jindra) kidnaps poor little (big?) Haley.

Drake and Susan call on local paranormal investigator Harrison Dent (Tomas Boykin) to help them find their daughter and put the spirits at ease.  Dent has a knack for talking to the dead, and agrees to help out.  Dent has a Knack for Talking to the Dead, and agrees to help out.  DENT HAS A KNACK FOR TALKING TO THE DEAD, AND AGREES TO HELP OUT.

Anyway, the Greniers figure out that Sarah just wants to be reunited with her own missing daughter, Annie (Jennifer Smart), whose spirit is trapped somewhere in the house.  After all the blasted-face apparitions, rattling windows, creepy girls in white dresses, balls rolling out of nowhere, creepy crayon drawings and every other cliché you’ve ever seen in any other horror movie, the big mystery boils down to finding Annie’s skeletal remains inside a trunk in the attic.

Let’s take a sidebar.  It’s been established that the ghosts in Winchester House can move objects around, sometimes violently.  We also see the ghost of Annie Winchester playing with Haley early on—only a few minutes, in fact, before we see the ghost of her mother, who’s ostensibly looking for her.  Granted, the lore of the estate is that, in life, Annie built several additions onto the house in order to confuse the ghosts; but does that mean she was so skilled as to confuse her own ghost self?  And after more than a hundred years, wouldn’t you think to check all the boxes in the attic?

Leaving the supernatural element out of it, let’s look at the climactic flashback, in which we see young Annie hanging out in the attic.  She hides from a deaf family member (servant?) by bunching herself up in a trunk.  The deaf guy places some boxes on top of the trunk and walks away, not hearing the girl’s screams.  That’s understandable, if not a bit of a stretch (what the hell was in those boxes that a twelve-year-old girl couldn’t knock over with some hearty pounding?).

What goes beyond belief is the idea that no one found this girl, ever.  She was able to breathe through the trunk’s keyhole, so suffocation wouldn’t have been a problem.  Did Sarah mount a search party?  Did no one think to check the attic, where Annie was known to play?  Maybe Sarah deserved to be separated from her daughter—not cosmically, but just for being a shitty mom.

Back to our “A” story.  Dent explains that there are two kinds of ghosts: those who know they’re dead and those who don’t.  The ones that know are allowed to move on to the spirit realm.  Those who don’t are trapped in an in-between state on Earth.  Dent begins to draw a safety circle from which he and the Greniers might reason with the ghost, but he’s slammed against a wall and falls to the floor, dead.  His spirit rises up, looks disappointedly at his body, and then vanishes.  The Greniers continue on, frantically.  The Greniers Continue On, Frantically.  THE GRENIERS CONTINUE ON, FRANTICALLY.

In the end, Drake and Susan find Haley in a walled-off room.  Sarah and Annie find each other, and all the strangeness at Winchester House ceases.  I guess the ghostly victims of Winchester rifles just wanted to see the heiress of the company that manufactured the tools that killed them reunited with the daughter she didn’t really deserve.  Makes sense.

The Greniers decide to leave and head down the road to their car.  But the car is missing.  Susan notices a drop in the road that she hadn’t seen before and peers over the edge.  She discovers an old, beat-up television playing a loop of the famous scene from The Sixth Sense between Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment.  Okay, not really, but that might as well have been what she found; the next couple of minutes are a montage of Big Reveals regarding the Greniers’ awful, twisted secret (no, they’re not Mormons).

The movie’s final sting comes in the form of an awkward call-back to Harrison Dent’s big speech about ghosts not realizing they’re dead; awkward because it A) sounds like the actor doing an audio commentary over the end credits and B) assumes that there are some people in the audience that still don’t understand what happened to the Greniers.  It’s baffling and gross, and I loved it.

In fact, there’s nothing I don’t love about this movie.  I could spend another thirteen-hundred words going point-by-point with all the bad acting choices, special effects fuck-ups and awesomely bad makeup snafus, but for the sake of (ahem) brevity—and to allow you the joy of discover as you watch this movie (which you must)—here are three of my favorites:

1.  A pair of cops comes to the house to follow up on a distress call.  They both get blown off the porch and impaled by tree branches.  The female cop dies from a branch that’s pierced her neck; not her throat—the side of her neck.  One might justify this as, “Well, it did pierce her carotid artery, so she could’ve just bled out.”  But it looks more like Atkins and company couldn’t figure out how to tape a branch to the center of the actress’s neck and cover the seam in fake blood.  Speaking of seams, they make no attempt to hide the latex appliance, and you can see the off-color, lumpy ridge right under her chin.  Awesome.

2.  Atkins tries to convey the maze-like sense of the house by showing an actor standing in the middle of a room and then randomly putting up series of still shots of hallways, doors, and other rooms.  This doesn’t so much create a paranoid sense of space as it does panic that the movie is having buffering issues.  On a related note, you can play “Spot the Re-shoot” in the scene where Drake and Susan are arguing in what is supposed to be a hallway but is really a green screen with a blown-up photo of a hallway hanging behind them (two clues: The “hallway” has a lot of noisy pixels floating around in it, and neither of the actors casts shadows against it).

3.  If you’re trying to open a locked cellar door from the outside—with the goal of freeing your trapped wife/daughter from a basement full of ghosts—wouldn’t you throw your whole body into it?  Or would you, like Drake, make constipated anger faces while barely moving your arms?  Just curious.

I love this movie more now than I did when I started watching it yesterday.  Blame a youth spent watching bad TV and reading comic books, but the fact that there’s a real Winchester House in California, with a similar legend, completely escaped me; until I raved about the movie to my friend Bill, who set me straight.  What’s great is that Atkins didn’t design his Winchester House to look like the real one; nor did he pay any attention to its actual geography.  It’s like making a movie about the Empire State Building that’s set inside the Space Needle.

So if you’re looking for a great Beer-and-Movie-Night feature with all the scares of Great America’s "Fright Fest", check out Haunting of Winchester House.  If you ask nicely, I may lend you my blu-ray, after it arrives next Tuesday.