Movie Review: Winchester
By Matthew Huntley
February 12, 2018
There's a good movie buried somewhere within “Winchester,” but it lies beneath a bed of horror cliches and the filmmakers' inexplicable need to rush through the story. The directors, Michael and Peter Spierig, seem to believe the audience has a short attention span and would rather be bombarded by action and special effects than spend any real time with the characters. This is ironic give the movie's obvious inspirations, films like “The Sixth Sense” and “The Orphanage,” which thrived on their slow buildup, patience, character development, and resistance to gimmicks. “Winchester” borrows these films' styles but unfortunately not their substance.
As yet another horror film “inspired by actual events,” “Winchester” tells the story of “the most haunted house in history.” In 1906 in San Jose, California, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), who dons herself in a black dress and veil all day long, is the grieving widow of William Winchester, founder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which manufactured various models of rifles that, in turn, killed thousands of people. His sudden death has left Sarah with a $20 million inheritance and 51% ownership of the company.
But the way Sarah is choosing to spend her late husband's fortune is drawing concern from the company board and other shareholders. She's expending millions building a sprawling, seven-story mansion that's constantly under construction, with new rooms being built and torn down daily. Her motivation is she thinks she's cursed and that death follows her (Sarah and William's daughter also succumbed to an untimely end), and because she now controls the Winchester company, she believes those who've met their fate at the hands of Winchester firearms—including slaves, Native Americans and Civil War soldiers—have returned as ghosts to claim revenge. In the mansion, she's using the several hundred rooms to recreate the environment in which the slain and slaughtered died so she can trap them, communicate with them, and then hopefully bring them peace so they can move on.
One representative for the company, Arthur Gates (Tyler Coppin), thinks the Winchester widow may be off her rocker and seeks out Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess her mental state. It's Gates' hope that the doctor will find Sarah insane and therefore unfit to retain control of the company.
It just so happens that Price, a firm believer in logic and the idea mind over matter, is in his own state of mourning after the death of his wife. Since her passing, he's descended into a life of debauchery and self-destructive behavior using substances like opium and alcohol. He tells Gates he's on sabbatical from his medical practice but is persuaded to take the case once he learns how much the company is willing to pay, and given the doctor's personal debts, he could use the money.
Price travels from San Francisco to San Jose to start his week-long evaluation of Mrs. Winchester. When he arrives, he's greeted coldly and sternly by Sarah's niece, Marion (Sarah Snook), herself a widow, whose son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey), has been waking up in the middle of the night, covering his head with a burlap sack, and pointing at an invisible being, muttering the words, “He's coming for us.” Amid such eerie disturbances, Marion makes it clear that her aunt is perfectly sane and only deserves their utmost respect.
When Price begins his assessment, Sarah is candid and tells him point blank, “I'm cursed, Dr. Price,” before explaining her reasons for endlessly constructing and tearing down rooms on her enormous estate. But Price doesn't believe what she tells him about ghosts seeking vengeance and thinks all the strange phenomena occurring around the mansion, including his own visions of ghastly beings with deformed faces, doors opening inexplicably, and Henry nearly falling to his death, can all be justified with reason and logic. He doesn't suspect any preternatural forces are at play.
But when Price comes into contact with his own wife (Laura Brent) and learns certain occupants in the house aren't who they say they are, he begins to entertain the notion that Sarah may be telling the truth after all. And once Price is onboard with the residence being haunted, the movie quickly devolves into sort of an endless funhouse of corporeal humans vs. otherworldly ghosts, with people getting tossed about, walls collapsing, furniture flying, apparitions suddenly appearing and disappearing, etc.
All this mayhem ensues against the usual backdrop of action, violence, loud crescendos, and sudden bursts on the soundtrack that are typical of the genre, and because “Winchester” prioritizes its mild, PG-13 shocks above everything else, the result is a movie that's not necessarily bad or offensive, just disappointingly standard. True story or not, there's nothing special about it; it's the most generic of genre pictures, which is a shame because we can sense the potential for something better, not least because of the cast. Helen Mirren is, as always, commanding and convincing as the troubled heroine. She lends more weight to the character of Sarah Winchester than the movie probably deserves, and even though it was probably tempting to play Sarah as a one-dimensional, incorrigible old bag, Mirren humanizes her, which makes her exchanges with Dr. Price all the more intelligent and engaging. We only wish they would have gone on longer.
On that same note, Mirren is well-matched by Clarke, who, in the last few years, has become a more-than-reliable supporting actor following his work in films like “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Everest” and “Mudbound.” He's so good, in fact, that it's even more painful to see him play dumb when the screenplay by the Spierig Brothers and Tom Vaughan forces his character to jump through all the customary (and silly) horror hoops, like swinging a mirror two or three times before a gruesome image suddenly appears in the reflection, or when he slowly investigates a creaking door and another hand reaches out and grabs him. Clarke is above such gimmicks. The movie would have been better off harnessing Clarke's genuine, down-to-earth talent and really exploring Dr. Price's grief, personal demons, and substance abuse. The movie only makes him as interesting as the plot requires before it succumbs to non-stop havoc, and so it feels like Clarke's character and acting get shortchanged. mayhem
At the end of the day, “Winchester” is nothing more than a by-the-numbers, conventional entry in the malnourished horror field. It has the resources, including superb production design and art direction, to be something more, but it doesn't utilize them in an effective or fresh way. The Spierig Brothers provide a promising setup with somewhat interesting characters but are too quick to let both be overtaken by action and special effects, the likes of which we've seen before. The movie meets the minimum requirements of the genre, but these aren't enough to make it worth our time.