Synopsis – Ensconced in her sprawling California mansion, eccentric firearm heiress Sarah Winchester believes she is haunted by the souls of people killed by the Winchester repeating rifle.
My Take – Horror films based on a haunted house are usually intriguing, especially when the story is real. This film based on Sarah Winchester, a widow and the heiress to the Winchester fortune, moved to San Jose, California in 1886, purchased an eight-room farmhouse, and proceeded to spend her vast inheritance transforming the property into an architectural wonder—a sprawling, seven-story mansion with winding hallways and staircases to nowhere, under constant construction by a team of carpenters that worked around the clock for years on end. She famously claimed the house—with its confusing maze of rooms, staircases leading nowhere, and abrupt dead ends—was built for the thousands of people killed by the deadly Winchester Repeating Rifle, the foundation of her own vast fortune. It’s crazy-quilt design, with secret passageways and stairways to nowhere, have made it a popular tourist attraction since 1923, when it was opened to the public after Sarah’s death. It’s a terrific back story and with a history like this, a compelling horror film did not seem like a bad idea, especially with sensation Helen Mirren leading the charge, along with the Spierig Brothers, who return to the big screen fresh from the success of their Saw franchise reboot, Jigsaw. However, unexpectedly co-directors, who wrote the script with Tom Vaughan, settle for a fairly routine, living-vs.-dead haunted house tale, unlike the rest of their filmography. Sure, compared to the usual horror dumps we get in the start of the year, the film is a better piece of storytelling and has a good twist to provide, yet the yawn-worthy script, despite being set and shot at the real Winchester Mystery House, never makes us feel claustrophobic or trapped, especially considering the weird geography of the house. Considering all the factors in its favor, Spierig Brothers seemed to have a sure shot hit in their hands, only if it didn’t feel like they were scared to go outside the realm of done to death jump-scares.
Set in 1906 in San Jose, California, the story follows Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a San Francisco-based psychiatrist, who along with being addicted to laudanum, has been living a dissolute lifestyle, until he is offered a job by the legal counsel of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. to assess the mental health of their CEO, Mrs. Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), who owns 51% of the company’s shares. With an offer to double his fee, if he visits her house, stays there and offers a report they are looking for, Eric agrees to be a guest to a house, which has been constantly adding new rooms and sections to with no clear reasons. While, Sarah believes that she and her house are haunted by the ghosts of victims of the Winchester repeating rifle, Eric remains skeptical, until a deadly spirit begins possessing young Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), the son of Marion Marriott (Sarah Snook), Sarah Winchester’s niece and secretary. Realizing that his job was not as easy as he thought it would be, Eric must agree to help the Winchesters figure out how to fight back against the violently disturbed spirit who is determined to exact his revenge. While the film does start off well, especially when it tries to be deliciously creepy by raising questions such as, is Sarah’s own psyche causing all of the weird phenomena? Is it all just illusions of the mind, as Price at first believes? And how does his personal history factor into it all?, yet everything crashes down when it diverts its attention to be nothing more than conventional ghost story with one particularly vengeful spirit as the designated villain, and the sole purpose of the protagonists is to defeat it. Considering this is a horror film, the lack of fun is surprisingly a big issue here, surprising considering how stylish and excellent, directors Spierig brothers previous ventures, the vampire flick Daybreakers & the science fiction thriller Predistination (both starring Ethan Hawke) were. To their credit, the brothers do try to give their new film a distinct setting and touch of elegance, a noble if futile effort to distract you from the cheapness of the film’s jolts and the dullness of its exposition, but the film is just too empty of high style or original ideas to be worth anyone’s time or attention. Though the ending tries to be thoughtful and shines in the twist, there’s not enough investment in these characters to care about, considering it shoves itself into the usual horror film climax involving lots of bangs, crashes, and a staid boogeyman, in fact, that last act skids completely off the rails, and poor Helen Mirren is asked to do work that is far beneath her talents in what is clearly a paycheck role. Also despite the creepy atmosphere, it’s rarely scary. The few tedious jump scares are telegraphed a mile out, with creepy faces popping out of the dark, strange murmurings and sobbing emanate from a panel of speaking tubes that connect the rooms and as soon as a display case of rifles is wheeled into a newly completed room, you know there’s going to be target practice before long. Even though the directors crew try their best to hide the truth quite well, using subtle camera work, and timing to really draw your attention away, it’s all too predictable, mainly as the characters did not look or feel threatened by what they were encountering, as they spend most of the film trying to figure out what is in the locked rooms or trying to see if Sarah Winchester is insane when she wonders at night. Plus, despite the spirit being a mean, nasty and quite powerful, his back story just turns into a standard cinematic boogeyman. Sure, both Mirren‘s character and Jason Clarke‘s character have some decent plot arcs to tie them to the central story contained within the house’s elaborate walls. Their journey through their struggles has some potent emotion behind, specifically Clarke‘s whose path to enlightenment takes a few dramatic twists that are impressive.
I liked the personalization of the characters, even the big bad spirit, that had a little more backbone to it than simply being dead and how all these characters mesh into this story, helps give a purpose to all the scares that are at hand. However, the other characters are unfortunately reduced to secondary roles that are semi-significant, but still lacking that needed edge that could have helped them stand out. Henry and his mom, and John the head carpenter, they were specifically mentioned, and then they quickly faded into the background until their hasty conclusions, though not the worst use of characters, but some finesse and better integration could have been the key. The film has some thematic problems too, as the film seems to suggest that that super strong new poltergeist is somehow responsible for the massive 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which hits during the film’s climax. There seems to be little other reason to have chosen this particular temporal setting for the story, and yet there’s also no reason to believe that these spirits have anything like this much power. Ghosts of slaves and Native Americans — people who’d have excellent cause to hate Winchester rifles, appear in the background, with no voices and no impact on the story; they are historic atrocities reduced to mere set dressing. However, what really works here is the Winchester house itself. I personally love how horror films have the potential to craft new, dark, incredible settings that bring life, or in this case death, to the screen, and here, the part real and part re-creation, the mansion steals just about every scene. Being one the most interesting settings I’ve seen in a while, a glamorized mansion modeled after the Winchester estate. This jigsaw puzzle like house is not the friendliest on the eyes, but it works to craft a twisted chamber that plays games on the mind. It holds great potential for a lot of scares with the uncertainty that lies around every corner and angled stair case and once the lights go down and only the candles flicker, the true craziness of the house could have been unleashed, alas it doesn’t. One of the finest moments of the films occurs when Eric arrives and finds himself in a room with a cabinet that clearly contains something alive. There’s a rational explanation, of course, but the good doctor never gets used to this disorienting house, nor do we. The directors, the Spierigs brothers are at their best when exploring its wrong-shaped doorways and creepy corridors. Coming to the performances, led by Helen Mirren, who for some reason seems to be having a lot of fun wearing her oppressively black widow’s gown and veil, which she wore for the entire length of this film. Despite hamming it up, she is actually quite fun to watch, mainly due to her over-the-top lines and tongue-in-cheek scenes. Jason Clarke, who seems to assigning himself with a really interesting filmography filled with blockbusters and a few Indies, seems in comfortable space here, as he acts out his fears, emotions & sarcasm rightfully. However, the same cannot be said about Sarah Snook, who despite her great potential, is limited to a typical mother role with nothing much to do than linger behind Mirren & Clarke. Finn Scicluna-O’Prey is alright, while Angus Sampson is wasted. On the whole, ‘Winchester’ is your typical haunted house film which despite its creepy setting is curiously low on mystery and scares.
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 99 minutes