Okay, so let’s just get this out of the way up front. Sean Olson’s Max Winslow and the House of Secrets is not a horror movie. Not even close—though some younger audience members may find a bathroom mirror scene particularly scary. What it may lack in the way of horror, however, is counterweighted by the heaviness of its subject matter, making for a film that chooses emotion over scares...
Max Winslow, recently premiering at Shriekfest 2019, stars a terrific young cast, with a production value that is stunningly rich. Visually, Olson’s film shines, and, on top of that, Jeff Wild’s writing is as smart as it is well thought out—even taking the time to answer one of my more immediate questions, like, how is this man allowed to take over an entire school’s utilities and disrupt an otherwise repetitive day?
This “guy,” is Atticus Virtue (who for some reason I wanted to keep calling Atticus Lore), played by seasoned actor, Chad Michael Murry, of One Tree Hill and House of Wax (2005, a personal favorite) fame. A self-made billionaire, developing technology designed to better life, Virtue is also a recluse, choosing to work in hiding, rather than adapt an outward lifestyle of the rich and famous. While Chad’s screen time is minimal compared to the rest of the cast, his presence is strong and believable as the genius, Atticus. I found myself wanting more time with him on screen.
The film opens by giving us a quick glimpse into each of the primary cast’s lives before cutting to the aforementioned disruption. While killing the school’s lights and taking over its audio and video may seem a bit extreme—not to mention leave you wondering just how and why he’s allowed to do so (Olson and Wild get props for addressing this a little later on)—it definitely gets the undivided attention with an otherwise distracted audience.
The reason for Atticus’ disruption? To announce his Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory-style contest, to choose five people to visit his mansion for a strategic night of games, with the grand prize being the key to said mansion.
At this point in watching the film, if you haven’t already figured out who the five contestants will be, there is something seriously wrong with your observational skills. There’s Connor (Tanner Buchanan, Designated Survivor), the high school pretty-boy/star athlete, who has dreams of becoming a musician. Aiden (Emery Kelly), the obligatory high school prick and all-around asshole. Then there’s Benny (Jason Genao), sedentary gamer, with no apparent need to interact with real life. Sophia (Jade Chynoweth) the stuck up, everyone-look-at-me, high school socialite with a serious attention disorder. And last, but not least, we have Maxine (aka Max Winslow), high school nerd and outcast, replete with some serious daddy issues, in a captivating performance by Sydne Mikelle.
And then there’s the star of the film (for me), HAVEN. HAVEN, short for Home Automated Venture (think J.A.R.V.I.S. of Iron Man notoriety), is voiced by the one and only Marina Sirtis, better known as Deanna Troi on Star Trek. Man, did I have a crush on her back in the day.
All the performances here are top shelf, showcasing different levels of real-life issues. I especially enjoyed Jade’s portrayal of Sophia’s social addiction, arguably reflecting the most current state of social life (or lack thereof) and providing the scariest bit of self-reflection we are shown. As the film progresses, we learn that each of these teens were handpicked by Atticus due to afflictions that have stunted their ability to thrive and connect with others. HAVEN presents each contestant with a “game” that is unique to their circumstance. Some of these games are straight-forward puzzles, while others are a bit funny, heartbreaking, or downright terrifying. However, all of them serve a purpose.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, Max Winslow is our protagonist, and as such, she solves the mystery of Atticus Virtue’s game, revealing the truth behind it. This “truth,” in a damned if you do/damned if you don’t kind of way, is polarizing by design, capturing the human condition and its needs in a spectacular fashion. You’ve got questions, Virtue has answers—you just might not like the path to get them. I was impressed and surprised by the inner conflict I had over it.
While Max Winslow and the House of Secrets may be geared toward younger audiences, I found its heartfelt meaning and story uplifting. It provides some genuine hope and guidance for a world that is filled with real horror.
By Daniel Boucher