Max Winslow and the House of Secrets borrows its story from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but fails to inject any intrigue.
In Max Winslow and the House of Secrets, five teens are invited to the mansion of Atticus Virtue—a reclusive tech entrepreneur—in a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque contest. The contestants must complete a series of puzzles, with the ultimate prize being the mansion itself.
As the title suggests, our hero is Max Winslow (Sydne Mikelle), a self-proclaimed hacker who is “like Neo from The Matrix except she’s from The Arkansas.” In the contest, she’s joined by a jock from the lacrosse team (Tanner Buchanan), the most popular girl in school (Jade Chynoweth), the school bully (Emery Kelly) and an obsessive gamer (Jason Genao).
The characters themselves aren’t much more developed than their respective cliques, despite their wishes to be seen as more. Early on in the film the jock of the group, Connor, reveals he’s not happy being ‘the lacrosse guy’—he’d much rather be ‘the music guy’. His aspiration to simply trade in one high school cliché for another might seem laughable, but it isn’t necessarily a flaw of the film, considering it is aimed at pre-teens. I enjoyed seeing the high schoolers’ personalities clash in predictable ways and this provided a fair number of laughs, although I’m not sure how many of these laughs were intentional. My favourite instances were the moments when the bully, Aiden, channels his inner Violet Beauregarde and becomes intensely competitive. “As soon as we get to this place, we’re enemies” he says earnestly to his classmates on the ride to the mansion.
The film also interestingly blends sci-fi with very light gothic horror, which provides some mystery at the opening. The mansion is controlled by an artificial intelligence that goes by the acronym HAVEN. HAVEN gives technological precedence to the ghostly occurrences of the house such as doors opening—or, more often, not opening. HAVEN is undeniably reminiscent of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as such its presence certainly adds a creepy atmosphere to the film. It is when the film maintains an air of mystery that it is most engaging. There’s something hidden in the basement and each room promises to house puzzles-a-plenty, but it’s consequently disappointing when the puzzles and mysteries prove insubstantial.
What the puzzles lack in intricate design they make up for in lethality. With each new puzzle, this family film increasingly resembles the Saw franchise, which I recognise is an incredibly bizarre comparison to make. The first puzzle sees them trapped inside a room ‘forever’ unless they can count a selection of gummy candies in order to obtain the door code. I won’t spoil any of the later puzzles, but they all suffer from being remarkably uninteresting death traps. This is a real shame as the main appeal of this film promises to be the puzzles, and yet they all seem to fall flat.
It’s also unfortunate that the film fails to deliver on the secrets of its title. The narrative is predictable and fails in its attempts to provide a strong moral message towards the end. There are moments when the film entertains a critique towards the role of technology in today’s society. However, this is all forgotten in the final act once the characters receive their rewards. In this context, the final prize comes to feel less a reward and more like hush money for the horrible ordeal the characters have faced.
Max Winslow and the House of Secrets promises to be a fun and engaging watch before its secrets become uncovered. However, the film quickly loses intrigue and becomes quite generic.
Max Winslow and the House of Secrets will be available on digital download from 15 February and can be pre-ordered here.
Words by Jake Abatan
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