Max Winslow and the House of Secrets is a family film, very much in the vein of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Maxine Winslow (Sydne Mikelle), or Max for short, is our Charlie Bucket, coming from a single-parent family and living with a mother who is struggling with debt. Tech-savvy Max is also a skilled hacker, demonstrating this by taking control of her neighbours video doorbell and making it ring so that he comes running outside. Kind of like a modern-day Knock-Down Ginger.
Max heads into school, where we’re introduced to some more teens who are set to join her later on, including a social-media obsessed girl, a boy addicted to gaming and a boy who enjoys trolling people online. As they settle down at their desks, the face of eccentric billionaire Atticus Virtue (Chad Michael Murray) takes over all of the TV screens throughout the school. He tells them that five students are to be selected to spend the night in his high tech mansion, and undertake a series of games, with the winner becoming the new owner of the mansion. When the confirmation text messages start coming through to the student phones later that day, we already know most of those that receive the big green tick on their screens, so they head off to the mansion, ready to spend the night.
Atticus himself isn’t at the mansion to greet the group. Instead, an AI named Haven (voiced by Marina Sirtis) opens the door for them, orders a takeaway delivery and gives them their instructions for the night. Basically, whoever solves the most puzzles and earns the highest score wins the mansion!
The puzzles start off ridiculously hard, with a locked door requiring a six-digit code to open, and only three attempts allowed. Max spots three jars of candy in the room and automatically decides that the total pieces of candy in each jar can be combined into a six-digit number, obviously. And you’re not supposed to think about how she managed to get them in the right order, or why the plate of cookies on the table wasn’t included in the code…
From there, the points come a lot easier for the team, such as simply putting on a pair of sunglasses(!), before turning slightly sinister as the group separates and everyone heads off on their own. Haven begins to go a little bit rogue, although with her monotone delivery of thinly veiled threats, she never really comes across as scary as I think she is meant to be. The games become a way of showing each individual the error of their ways – narcissistic Sophia is trapped in a bathroom talking to her mirror reflection, which has now turned into a nastier version of herself, while others are trapped in VR scenarios designed to show them where they’ve gone wrong in life.
It’s at this point that the movie struggles. The VR recreations are mostly dull, while other scenes utilise some pretty dodgy VFX and there’s never any real feeling of peril or threat. The young cast, for the most part, give some pretty good performances. However, with a mediocre script, none of them is really given very much to work with. Consequently, some of them, particularly the character of Max, feel a little wasted, not fleshed out enough.
While entertaining at times, Max Winslow and the House of Secrets is too scary for young children and not dramatic or scary enough for adults to really enjoy. Hopefully, though, the teen audience that this is squarely aimed at will pick up on the strong moral messages at the heart of the movie and will manage to gain some enjoyment from it.
Max Winslow and the House of Secrets will be available on Digital Download from 15th February. For more information, go to http://www.maxwinslowfilm.co.uk/