“Winchester”- Movie Review
The Winchester Mystery House is one of the most famous haunted houses in the United States. Built from 1883 to 1922, the mansion was home to Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun magnate William Winchester. Sarah believed she was being haunted by the spirits of those who were killed by the very rifles her husband’s company produced, and that by continuously adding onto the house, she’d be able to keep the spirits at bay. The house has been the subject of countless paranormal investigations and mini-documentaries, as well as an inspiration for fiction novels and video games. It’s even considered a nationally historic landmark in the state of California. So with all that said, you’d think a story like this would be ripe for the silver screen.
Directors Peter and Michael Spierig take a shot at bringing the Winchester legend to life in this new horror flick from Lionsgate and CBS Films. Set in 1906, the film stars Jason Clarke as Eric Price, a psychologist with a tragic past and a nasty drug addiction who’s sent to the Winchester house to evaluate Sarah’s mental state and determine whether she’s fit to oversee the company. The two meet and Price immediately dismisses Sarah’s ghostly claims as the ravings of a widow overcome with grief. Soon, however, he starts to realize there’s something sinister brewing within the walls of Winchester.
I am a sucker for haunted house movies. So when I heard they were making a movie about the Winchester Mystery House, I was a little excited. That excitement fizzled out, however, once I saw the trailer. It looked beyond generic, and I hoped it wasn’t really going to be what the trailers were building up. Now that I’ve seen the film, I can honestly say it turned out just how I feared it would be.
Winchester is a horror film with very little horrors. It takes a fascinating true story, trims it down to the bare bone essentials, then dogpiles it with lame jump scares, weak characterizations, and tropes you’ve seen in a dozen other haunted house movies. In some respects, there is some effort behind the camera. The cinematography is very nice. While tension is severely lacking, the Spierig brothers do manage to capture the time period and the eeriness of the mansion pretty well. Granted, of the hundreds of rooms to explore we only see about four of them, and I personally would have loved to see more of the strange architecture. But for what it’s worth, the directors do put enough effort to at least give the film an interesting visual appeal.
The writing is where things turn sour. The actors do fine with what they’re given. Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke are good, though their roles aren’t meaty enough to warrant anything spectacular. Honestly the most impressive performance comes from Sarah Snook as Winchester’s niece. Impressive not because her character is incredibly complex or fascinating or unique, but because her performance is simply stronger than the others. The kid who plays her son, on the other hand, is a different story. I won’t be too harsh on him seeing how he’s, well, just a kid, but his presence is utterly pointless. He isn’t playing a character. He’s playing a plot device. And because of that, he is unable to put any personality into his performance. He’s just the “possessed child” trope, the character the ghost embodies to affect the physical world. But when we see what the ghosts are capable of towards the end of the film, you can look back and realize there’s no purpose as to why the trope needed to be there at all.
Without giving too much away, the film has an antagonist whose motivations are so absurd that it’s hard to take them seriously. Albeit the twist regarding them is pretty cool, and there’s an intense flashback sequence that’s especially unsettling. By the time the film reaches its third act, however, the story jumps the shark completely, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about what was happening. It doesn’t help that there’s no shred of genuine suspense or atmosphere to be found or felt. It uses loud noises and typical horror imagery to trick you into thinking what you’ve just seen is scary. In reality, it’s lazy.
Winchester had the potential to be something great. It has strong elements sprinkled throughout: the richness of the true story, Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester if she had more to work with, the overall look of the movie, a pair of filmmakers who’ve proved their talent in past projects, and brief moments of psychological and dramatic intrigue. These threads are consistently sacrificed in favor of a bland run-of-the-mill horror narrative. I wish this story was handled with more care. It should have been more character-driven, more atmospheric and deeply psychological. Instead, what we have is an non-scary throw-away film unworthy of the price of admission.
Cosmic Grade: 2/5 Stars