It is wholly appropriate that the real life setting of Winchester is a seven-story house that has all kinds of doors and stair cases that lead to nowhere. That is exactly where this film goes. Often, horror that is based on true stories feel more inherently creepy than the traditional jump scare filled ones cinema-goers see this time of year. Yet, the true story which is admittedly fascinating, is wasted in a soulless early year studio horror film. The Spierig Brothers (Jigsaw) who direct this film, never quite grasp the complexities of its namesake. Not even the great Helen Mirren can save Winchester from becoming a cheaply assembled mess.
While Mirren gives it her all as the films namesake, the movie generally feels like it was assembled by studio executives looking to make a quick buck. Mirren plays Sarah Winchester, a widow and heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Winchester has seen enormous loss in her life that also includes
her own child’s death. Suffering from severe grief from these losses and guilt over the amount of people slain at the hands of the company’s weapons, she begins to mentally lose touch. As a result, she is convinced her family is cursed by the ghosts of the Winchester rifles victims.
Mirren is a wonderful actress, and it’s clear she isn’t above the material so to speak. However, she isn’t given much to work with. With a character as complex as Winchester, the film spends entirely too much time on the possession elements. The excruciating sorrow Mrs. Winchester is experiencing has poisoned her mind, that much is clear. But what the films script (co-written by the Spierig brothers) seems to focus the most here is her belief in what can essentially be boiled down to as demon possession.
I understand the approach here is horror. The elements of which simply do not work. Throw in an auto-pilot engaged Jason Clarke and the movie drags to the finish line. Clarke plays a doctor tasked with evaluating Sarah’s mental state. As the plot “thickens” Clarke’s past traumas come back to haunt him as well. Everything thrown at you, you see coming. The attempted red herrings in the plot only make things worse. Clarke’s Dr. Price is an opioid addict which the perfect first hour plot device to keep the audience in the dark. That’s a problem. Winchester assumes its audience is so daft, it won’t see anything to come in the third act.
What unfolds over the films final, painfully boring 30 minutes, is nothing more than jump scare after jump scare and shocking plot reveals that absolutely are not shocking whatsoever. The movie’s 99 minutes seem to take three hours.
What can even be said about the films production design? Normally, the movie would gain some credit for its period setting. All that considered, the film was shot in the real Winchester Mystery House, what production design could have been needed? The house itself is a massive tourist attraction today. It is recognized by many to be one of the most haunted places in the United States.
Normally I would say that this film will hit with its target audience. That is a never a bad sentiment. Yet I wonder who this film was even made for? The filmmakers never seem to have a grasp on their own style. It borrows heavily from every other haunting film you’ve ever seen. Why take such an interesting story that could be served better as a fascinating character study and turn into a studio influenced snooze-fest? I don’t think we’ll ever know why. In the maze that is the Winchester Mystery House, you’ll ultimately feel like you are trapped in a maze for 99 minutes upon watching this disaster.
Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Angus Sampson
Director: The Spierig Brothers
Runtime: 99 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic.)