On a once-isolated stretch of land in the Californian city of San Jose stands a bizarre-looking Victorian mansion that, according to legend, is the most haunted house in the world. Commissioned by Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, the 160-room manor was constructed piecemeal, with no overall masterplan, by crews toiling 24 hours a day for decades.
To many it stands as a bizarre monument to a woman’s madness but Winchester herself saw it as a kind of astral holding cell for the hundreds of spirits seeking revenge after being killed by her company’s rifles. It seems incredible that such perfect horror fodder has never been made into a movie but directors Michael and Peter Spierig, the Australian twins behind “Daybreakers” and “Jigsaw,” are about to rectify that.
“Winchester” stars Jason Clarke as Eric Price, a fictional psychiatrist summoned in 1906 by the real-life Sarah Winchester, played by Helen Mirren, when her company insists she be evaluated for her mental fitness. On the surface, “Winchester” works as a taut haunted house story. But to Clarke, it also serves as an allegory for the gun control debate, which has been raging in the United States for decades but gained impetus after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
“Gun control, profiteering from arms, is an ongoing debate: responsibility for where you’re at because of what came before you or what you did,” Clarke, 48, told AFP in an interview ahead of the movie’s release on Friday. “You’ve got a woman who is able to live in this world (only) because of what she did. And if you put it in the time-the West was won, I guess, we’d reached the coast-there was just blood and slaughter and destruction the whole way across.”
Stairways to nowhere
In the movie, Clarke’s character is an opium addict with his own demons, who thinks the task of declaring Winchester insane will be straightforward-until things go bump in the night and he realizes it is he who is being manipulated. Horror is often dismissed by critics as the least worthy of cinematic genres but, says Clarke, acting in tense, frightening movies requires a technical discipline not always apparent in other forms of acting.
“I enjoyed learning and being taught by both the brothers how to be in a scary movie,” he said, listing aspects of body language and timing which are part of the visual language of horror cinema. “They are where a lot of directors cut their teeth and learn their craft… I prefer films like this that have intelligence behind them. They’re not just slasher films or gratuitous, everyone’s getting massacred.”
The most bizarre features of the so-called Winchester Mystery House-now a popular tourist attraction-include a maze of confusing halls, stairways to nowhere, 2,000 doors, several of which open into blank walls, 47 fireplaces, trap doors, turrets, towers and a seance room. Much of the house was destroyed by the historic 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Clarke recalled two months of physically demanding filming in a replica of the house in Melbourne, getting beaten up by “ghosts” and thrown around by the simulated quake before decamping for a final few days to the real-life property in San Jose. “To then walk onto it a couple of days later on the other side of the world was very strange. There’s nobody in the house. I was setting up when I got there and I went for a wander and got lost,” Clarke said.
Lazy and bloated
“It’s a very disorienting strange place-stairways to nowhere and just the way that it’s built. Even though every room is completely different it’s hard to get your bearing.” Clarke-who, for the record, says he doesn’t believe in ghosts-has built up a reputation for critically acclaimed independent films and blockbusters that make you think. It’s not that he’s averse to the odd brainless action movie-see Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” or the much-maligned “Terminator: Genisys”-but Clarke speaks passionately about the need for actors to take responsibility for their output.
In recent years the Australian actor has been a CIA torturer in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” and starred in sci-fi actioner “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” Baltasar Kormakur’s true-story survival epic “Everest” and Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” At a Q&A in Los Angeles for one of his most recent projects, Dee Rees’s multiple Oscar-nominated racial drama “Mudbound,” the actor lamented the “lazy and bloated” ubiquity of blockbuster franchises, calling on actors to commit to projects that teach audiences something about the world.
“Hopefully there’s a whole world out there that you can show them and I think in films, if all we make is sausage all people will want is sausage,” Clarke tells AFP, asked his view on the proliferation of superhero movies. “Yes, films need to make their money back-it’s an expensive business and people need to be paid for what’s involved-but just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.”–AFP