‘Winchester’ Summons A Haunted House Misfire (Movie Review)

Fun fact, seeing a spooky film based on the Winchester Mystery House is not my first encounter with this famous site. Before seeing Winchester, I actually visited the San Jose location with my horror-movie-loving mother a good couple decades ago. While my memories of that tour are vague, it feels like I got more out of that strange adventure than I did with this film. It’s a shame, as there is enough in the concept alone to make a meal out of a real-life mansion entirely fit for a haunted house story. Instead, the so-called “House That Ghosts Built” feels more like real estate fraud.

Set in 1906, the film revolves around the mansion owned by Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), a widow convinced her home is inhabited by ghosts who died at the hands of Winchester rifles. Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is summoned to the house to determine whether Sarah is of sound mind to continue to hold a majority stake in the Winchester Company. Of course, as soon as Eric arrives, he finds that things are going bump in the night, as well as the day, and any other time the ghosts see fit to provide some shock to Eric and the audience.

The use of music is just one of the many sins in a film that seems content on doing the same ol’ thing in the realm of haunted house films and creepy ghost stories. Composer Peter Spierig never misses a moment to play up the sharp strings when it comes to adding a jump scare to any familiar scene involving isolated characters and quiet settings. This tactic is not always the worst, but in a film that plays to so many conventions, there isn’t much surprise in loud chords that are supposed to be startling.

Further disappointment comes from how this concept and location are utilized. The Winchester house should feel like a character in this film, but twin brother directors The Spierig Brothers fail to do much in letting us know this building or get a sense of the geography. Sure, we get a sense of how grand it is and have a little fun with how confusing its design is supposed to be, but be it a budgetary issue or just a lack of understanding of what would work best, it often feels like we are visiting some of the same few rooms over and over. That’s just not satisfying for a film telling a story about a seven-story house with over a hundred rooms.

Story-wise there is also little to go on. Winchester takes on some concepts seen in many films before it and adds nothing to spice up the ideas. The faulty rules involving the ghosts do the film no favors either. For example, a big deal is made about using thirteen nails to seal a door shut and keep certain spirits contained, yet there is no reasoning as to why this works, let alone an appearance of it being a successful maneuver. There’s enough flimsiness to the writing where anything can happen to scare the characters at a moment’s notice, before reaching the required climactic ghost battle.

With so many issues, this is where one would hope the casting could shine. Sadly, this I not the case. Having over 100 acting credits to her name, this is surprisingly Mirren’s first horror film, and while I’m sure the Spierigs must have thought they landed a golden goose by having her involved, there’s not much for her to do. The film is very self-serious, and while Mirren is certainly capable of hamming it up and turning Winchester into some sort of sarcastic spinster, that was apparently not asked of her. As a result, there’s no campy fun coming with this performance, and the film suffers more because of it.

On the other hand, Clarke does what he can with his role, as the story affords him the opportunity to let his character be tortured and have a need to redeem himself (based on one of the more familiar tropes involving a grieving white man). It’s his efforts in the first half of the film that are more amusing, as his character abuses medicine enough to have the audience enjoy him trying to rationalize the random ghost appearances by attributing it to his drug use. Having him hold humorous contempt for Winchester’s stuffy staff doesn’t hurt either.

Setting early hopes for a better film aside, there’s just not much going on in this movie to warrant much enthusiasm. The Spierigs have now followed up their brilliant time travel film, Predestination, with a messy Saw sequel (Jigsaw) and now this unengaging haunted house film. They even brought along Sara Snook from Predestination and Angus Sampson from the Insidious movies (this is a very Australian cast and crew) and found nothing exciting for them to do. Along with the contradictory thoughts on the dangers of gun violence that can only be solved with more gun violence, Winchester ends up having a lot it wants to work with, and yet poorly realized for much of its 99-minute runtime.

I’m sure there’s a version of this film that could have worked. Hammer Films had the rights to this story at one point, and I can only imagine what a movie that went much harder on the gothic horror angle could have been like. As it stands, this film finds itself on a shaky foundation. It doesn’t completely crumble, but this movie really could have used some remodeling.

  1. No Comments