Written by: The Spierig Brothers, Tom Vaughan
Directed by: The Spierig Brothers
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, and Sarah Snook
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Terror is building.
At first glance, Winchester seems to be anything but typical haunted house fare. Boasting an impressive cast headlined by Helen Mirren and helmed by the Spierig brothers (Daybreakers, Predestination, Jigsaw), itís sourced from one of the Americaís most intriguing true horror stories. As the story goes, Sarah Winchesterówidowed heiress to the Winchester Repeating Rifle Companyóinsisted that her family was haunted by the spirits of those killed by the companyís arms. To combat the curse, she erected a chaotic, byzantine 7-story home that remained perpetually under construction until she passed away in 1922, and the structure still stands as an alluring tourist attraction to this day. Clearly, thereís an incredible horror movie to be gleaned from this material; unfortunately, this take isnít it, as Winchester is painfully typical ghost movie junk, even if it is masquerading under the pretense of unearned prestige.
Winchester herself isnít even the central figure in her own story here. Instead, that distinction goes to Eric Prince (Jason Clarke), a fictional doctor who spends his days tripping on opium in San Francisco. Despite this, however, the Winchester company sees him as the perfect candidate to investigate the curious case surrounding their heiress, who has holed herself up in her cavernous mansion. Sensing an opportunity to wrest control of the company from her, they dispatch Prince to determine if sheís mentally fit to be in charge of the company. What they donít know is that Prince harbors his own trauma that will intersect with the bizarre events unfolding at the Winchester mansion.
In spite of the setup here, thereís never any ambiguity surrounding Sarah Winchesterís claims. Almost immediately, itís revealed that her home is, in fact, quite haunted, as the Spierigs roll out the usual assortment of haunted house parlor tricks: shadowy figures, sudden jolts, objects moving mysteriously, etc. To their credit, the Spierigs donít stage a full-on assault with this stuff: most of the jolts are patiently built towards, and itís clear they value atmosphere over staging an endless sequence of scares. All these good intentions canít compensate for how familiar Winchester is, though, and the drawn-out, suffocating verve renders it even more lifeless. At a certain point, the jolts start to feel like a courtesy to an audience that might need to be jostled a bit.
Adding to the familiarity is a subplot involving a kid in peril that may or may not be possessed by one of the spirits haunting the house. In many ways, Winchester just feels like a grab bag of recent haunted house fare, right down to Sarah and Princeís attempt to figure out exactly which spirit is raising hell, a turn of events that has them delving into the heiressís extensive files to uncover a sordid backstory involving a confederate soldier. Itís fine but feels especially perfunctory after four Insidious movies have explored similar territoryóand with much more style and energy to boot.
Eventually, this doesnít prove to be enough story, so the plot circles back around to Princeís own cryptic backstory. Throughout the film, heís haunted by memories of a dead wife, and Sarah eventually pulls the entire story out of him. Unsurprisingly, the interplay between Clarke and Mirren is one of the filmís strengths: if thereís anyone who could make this rote material seem more interesting than it is, itís these two, and I particularly like how Mirrenís Winchester isnít presented as a stereotypical loon. From her first encounter with Prince, itís clear that Sarah Winchester is in charge here: she admonishes him for his drinking habit and makes it clear that sheíll be in full control of this investigation. In fact, she reminds him that, in a roundabout way, sheís actually his boss on account of owning the company thatís hired him to be there. If nothing else, this is a well-performed recitation of a tired routine, I guess.
Whatís frustrating is that Winchester does have all the makings to at least be invigorating in some way. In a vacuum, some of it sounds like a total hoot: for one thing, itís one of the very few horror movies that tries to coax a scare from a gag involving a roller skate. Likewise, few ghost stories climax with an earthquake like this one does, and Iím guessing even fewer conjure up the boneheaded solution offered here: see, it turns out that the best way of ridding yourself of an unvanquished spirit who died due to gun violence is toÖshoot it again? I have no clue how this dumb movie isnít as fun as it sounds, but something tells me that its prestigious air works against it: Winchester looks to well-burnished and mannered to actually yield to any fun impulses.
As such, youíre left with a lifeless dud: Winchester is an inspired bit of production design desperately trying to feel like anything other than a husk of a film. The infamous mansion itself is immaculately replicated here, and the Spierigís wisely luxuriate in the labyrinthine structureís dead-end hallways, bizarre staircases, and claustrophobic corridors. Itís a character in and of itself, though I did find myself wishing its chaotic structure were more gracefully threaded within the story itself. Weíre never really even treated to a scene where anyone is lost within this huge, suffocating maze. Thereís a great, subtle, psychologically-driven take to be mined from the Winchester lore (think a turn-of-the-century Session 9 that also manages to find something to say about this countryís problem with gun violence), but this version is more preoccupied with surface-level scares and grisly lore.
Ultimately, it feels perfunctory in more ways than one: not only are there plenty of movies that offer similar scares, but the Winchester house itself also offers pretty much the same thing. Even if this film serves as a substitute for those who canít visit the real thing, itís a rather hollow recreation that feels like a huge missed opportunity.
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