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observation notes: Haunting of Winchester House

A frightening ghost story, this one's about a family who come to take care of the famed Winchester House in California, built at the turn of the last century by Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune. Besides being rich and idle, Ms. Winchester was also an avowed spiritualist and probably a touch crazy, so she built her house, the Winchester House, as this architecturally-insane haven for the restless souls of anyone ever killed by a Winchester rifle. This is all true, mind you, and while it's a polite-enough notion, you have to think about the sort of characters who would have met their demise at the business end of a Winchester, and then you start to get an idea of the sorts of spirits hanging around this place. When a series of supernatural experiences befalls the family, they call in a paranormal investigator to help them vanquish the evil spirits.

I'll admit I've been long-fascinated with the Winchester House and its history, and thought it well-about time someone fashioned its creepy origins into a horror film. And in the script from Mark Atkins (Battle of Los Angeles, duh), I found no reason to be disappointed. The story was tense, suspenseful, rife with intelligent scares, bold jolts and was solid down to its historical foundation. What could have easily lapsed into a rogue's gallery of goofy villains - and there is a wide variety of ghosts/zombies, but they are not at all goofy - actually moves like an old-school chiller along the lines of The Innocents or Thirteen Ghosts, so winds up a deft balance of modern shocks and classic pacing.

Mark Atkins other gig on the film - directing it - also scores: he matches the pacing of his script with slowly-built suspense that breaks at the perfect point then doesn't relent. His use of shadows and framing to elicit a tense, mounting fear in the viewer is especially on point. 

From a directorial standpoint, this is a very excellent horror film that gets all the elements just right. The FX on the ghosts at the end are a little hokey, and the house itself is quite obvious CG when seen from the outside, but again, you know what you're in for. If you want visceral effects that are seamless from reality, go watch Avatar; but if you want to be a movie fan, in it for the escapism and not the parallels to your own, strange life, you should be just fine for 85 minutes with this one. 

Regarding performances, Lira Kellerman plays the wife, and while visually it was difficult to conceive of her as the mother of an adolescent girl, personality-wise she pulls it off well-enough and is effectively-believable as a nagging wife and mother. She weeps well, skulks better, and exudes an odd sort of sexiness, kind of like Thelma from Scooby-Doo, but less-tangible, and kinda nerdier.

Michael Holmes as the husband is a little stiff in the beginning - which is somewhat excusable as this is his first film - but opens up quite a bit as his role requires more emotion. Most of note, the guy gives a good over-the-shoulder wary glance.

But the standout here, for me at least, was Patty Roberts, who played the couple's adolescent daughter. I found her to be the most natural of the actors, sort of like a younger Thora Birch. As the most-plagued of the family by the spirits of Winchester House, she simultaneously exudes a childish fearfulness and a mature responsiveness. 

Other cast members of note include Tomas Boykin as the paranormal investigator and tiny Jennifer Smart as ghost-girl Annie Winchester, Sarah's daughter. She gave me the willies every single time she was onscreen. One helluva debut for her.

So then overall, as I mentioned, this is a ghost film, of the old-school, its story reliant at least equally, if not more so, on twists and turns of plot for progression rather than an endless string of quick-cut shocks. Think Amityville meets The Uninvited with a healthy dose of The Shining in the premise. And, as I mentioned, the FX on the house were at times ghastly, but the ghosts/zombies/bad guys were horrifying, inventive and gruesome, truly the things of nightmares, especially a certain...thing whose head can be seen on the poster and who made a certain Trainspotting scene feel like a sequence from Bedknobs & Broomsticks

A good scare, this one, and more importantly, a good film, too.


  1. I've got this movie here to watch on BluRay at some point, but haven't gotten around to it. Now I'm really wanting to bump it up to the top of the pile, lol

    Semi-related - I'm actually surprised Supernatural hasn't tackled the legend of this house at all yet. They're really good with taking on true legends and real people, and ever since Season 1 I've been wanting them to have an ep about this house (Especially considering the last names of the main characters), but alas, it seems it's not gonna happen. Not anytime soon anyway.

  2. funny you mention supernatural - i've always had it in my head the writers would find a way to make sam and dean related to sarah.

  3. In the early seasons, so did I, but I kind of gave up on that after the first 3 or so seasons, lol, which I'm fine with either way.