A film review by Craig J. Koban June 3, 2018


2018, PG-13, 99 mins.


Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester /  Jason Clarke as Eric Price  /  Sarah Snook  /  Angus Sampson  /  Laura Brent as Ruby  /  Tyler Coppin as Arthur Gates  /  Emm Wiseman as Nancy Miller  /  

Directed by the Spierig Brothers  /  Written by Peter Spierig






WINCHESTER is a new historical horror thriller that's set in an infamous haunted mansion in 1906 San Jose, just before the Great Earthquake that ravaged during the same year.  The residence - located at 525 South Winchester Blvd - was renown for its massive size and multiple architectural abnormalities.  It was also home to Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester Rifle empire and fortune, and she believed that her home was haunted by the spirits of the dead that were killed at the butt end of, yes, Winchester Rifles.  WINCHESTER has title cards that state that it's based on a true story...which is superficially true, I guess, depending on where one falls on the are ghosts real or not spectrum. 

The film is, to be fair, impressively mounted on a technical level and boasts some seriously impressive period art direction and design.  It also maintains a chillingly evocative sense of time and place that works modestly well in its favor.  The directors here are the Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter), who both previously made the mostly forgotten, but quite good vampire themed DAYBREAKERS and, more impressively, the tremendously underrated time travel thriller PREDESTINATION.  If anything, the Spierigs have the necessary pedigree as proficient filmmakers to make WINCHESTER feel ominously creepy, not to mention that they surround themselves with a couple of lead actors that are able to somehow make the preposterousness of their film somehow feel grounded and authentic.  Where WINCHESTER falters, though, is in its execution as a viscerally potent and frightening horror film, and the Spierigs make the categorical and rookie blunder of thinking that a high quotient of methodical jump scare moments equates to nerve rattling suspense and intrigue.  That's too bad, because there's a good film to be had here that's bungled by mediocre execution. 



WINCHESTER opens in a fairly hammy fashion, showcasing the so-called "Winchester Mystery House" as a piece of architecture that almost has a spooky life of itself.  It's unfathomably huge and sprawling and, weirdly enough, is always under round the clock, 24/7 construction overseen by the aforementioned Winchester heiress Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), who continually requests that more rooms be added and without interruption when more and more ghosts apparently haunt her home's hallways and rooms. Some of the more unfriendly ghosts can only be contained within rooms that have their doors secured by 13 nails (I guess because even numbers are cursed).  Sarah's niece, Marriott (PREDESTINATION's wonderful Sarah Snook), and her young son Henry (Finn Scicluna-Oprey) seem particularly creeped out by the omnipresent specters.   

Sarah feels extremely guilt ridden about the violent legacy that the Winchester Rifle has had on the world, and she's beyond sure that those that have been shot to death by those weapons are making everyone's lives in their home a haunted living hell.  The higher ups that run the Winchester empire don't think highly about Sarah's overall mental state, which is primarily why they decide to send in Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a psychiatrist that they hope will be able to deduce whether or not Sarah has gone completely crazy.  Eric himself is not so squeaky clean either, seeing as he has a predilection towards easy women and drug taking, which makes him a mentally unstable person in his own right.  Regardless, Eric arrives at the Winchester home to see what all of the fuss is about and to determine what in the hell is going on regarding Sarah's constant home builds.  Predictably, the proverbial shit does indeed hit the fan.

The Spierigs, as previously mentioned, are strong visualists, and WINCHESTER looks quite solid as a work of bold imagery.  The film offers up a stellar recreation of the interiors and exteriors of the Winchester house (even though some beyond obviously fake computer effects have been employed here as well to distracting effect).  Needless to say, WINCHESTER is an immersive horror thriller on a level of pure visual dynamism, and its overall sound design here as well compliments the proceedings in solid fashion (the omnipresent construction noises that surround every character at every waking moment have an unnerving quality all to their own).  I think that one of the overall keys to any type of Gothic horror is its production design, and WINCHESTER certainly doesn't fail in this regard. 

There's also some undeniably compelling thematic terrain this film traverse across, like the timely issues of how Sarah feels largely and personally responsible for the deaths that her late husband's product has caused, which, in its own unique manner, almost becomes a rallying cry for gun control during an era where the phrase never really existed.  Now, obviously enough, the real life Sarah Winchester was undoubtedly a deeply conflicted woman that also had a penetrating spiritual side; she probably felt damaged by the repeating rifle's polarizing history.  WINCHESTER seems to dive down the rabbit hole of finding a happy middle ground between myth and reality; the film is inspired by fact, but there are easy and obvious questions to be had about the authentic nature of the ghosts that populated her home.  Even if one doesn't believe in the supernatural and thinks this film is fifty per cent hogwash, Sarah Winchester's peculiar life is the stuff of public and historical record, which gives WINCHESTER an underlining sense of reality to its cockamamie story. 

Still, WINCHESTER kind of fails to hold itself cohesively together throughout, especially in the area of character dynamics, which are either underwritten or poorly delineated.  Price, for example, is a character traumatized by the death of his wife, a plot detail that you know - you just know! - will figure in heavily when he begins to have visions of beings that are not of this normal plane of reality.  It also builds to an obligatory story arc where Price has to resolve his emotional issues he has regarding his wife's passing in order to deal with the spooks that are causing havoc, which is tied inevitably to the manner that the Spierigs make the Winchester house that rarely ever feels like an endlessly intriguing haunted house.  This, in turn, leads to one of the most glaring and frustrating stylistic conceits in WINCHESTER, which is the constant barrage of boo! moments that litter the running time, and since you can pretty much single handedly predict when each jump scare will occur in the film it all but drowns out any level of menace and intensity this horror tale should have had.  The longer WINCHESTER progresses the more systematically predictable, prosaic and mechanical it becomes as a fright generating machine. 

Mirren and Clarke are thanklessly decent here, and they miraculously manage to play their respective roles as straight laced as possible, no matter what preposterous and hard to swallow turn the plot takes.  WINCHESTER is the kind of film that seems to squander the good will of their combined talents in a story that never sufficiently feels fleshed out enough to warrant their participation.  Disappointingly, the Spierigs never make this film attain any level of sizeable takeoff as either a truly alarming ghost yarn or as a piece of anti-gun commentary that speaks well towards the real life horrors of its time and the present day.  Even when the film journeys towards a would-be rousing climax that tries to be dramatically fulfilling, it's all for naught because, deep down, we never really develop a rooting interest for any of the characters.  WINCHESTER has all of the necessary ingredients at its disposal for a genuinely authoritative historical horror yarn, but the end result is so mournfully uninspired and messy that it will inspire more yawning in audience members than shrieks. 

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