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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.