Winchester (formerly known as Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built) is the latest spooky offering from the filmmaking siblings Michael and Peter Spierig, and was inspired by the myths and legends that have sprung up over the years around the infamous Winchester Mystery House. The Spierig Bothers made a name for themselves in the 2000s with their imaginative sci-fi/monster horror mashups Undead and Daybreakers, but have since transitioned into making less memorable genre fare like Predestination and the Saw revival Jigsaw. Winchester is in keeping with the brothers’ recent work in that it’s a standard haunted house genre movie that fails to leave a strong impression, good or bad. Winchester is a bland horror film that avoids being altogether forgettable thanks to leads Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke.
The film takes place in the year 1906, as one Dr. Eric Price (Clarke) is called on by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to conduct a medical examination of Sarah Lockwood Winchester (Mirren), and determine whether or not she is of a sound state of mind. Sarah inherited a massive fortune and majority stake in the Winchester company after the death of her husband twenty five years earlier, but has dedicated much of her time since then to constructing her San Jose mansion. The massive manor is continuously being rebuilt and/or expanded on Miss Winchester’s orders, on the belief that the house serves as an asylum for the vengeful spirits of those who have been killed by Winchester rifles over the years.
Naturally, Dr. Price is highly skeptical about everything that Miss Winchester tells him upon meeting her, chalking up her claims to her lingering grief over the deaths of her husband and, before then, her young daughter. Price’s skepticism then begins to change to fascination when he finds out that Sarah specifically requested for him to be the one to determine her sanity, fearing for the safety of her niece (Sarah Snook) and grand-nephew (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), who live with her in the manor. Soon, however, Price starts to grow fearful himself, as he realizes that there may be a terrifying truth behind everything that Sarah has been telling him.
Written by the Spierig Brothers from an earlier script draft by Tom Vaughan (Unstoppable), Winchester unfolds as a by the numbers haunted house film, complete with a disbelieving protagonist whose backstory plays a central role in the narrative, and a big supernatural baddie at the core of the story’s conflict. While the film throws in a few plot twists and turns in an effort to mix things up, Winchester ultimately follows a clear story trajectory and has few real surprises up its sleeves. Dr. Price’s character arc in the film is similarly predicable, but Clarke’s performance lends it more emotional heft and further demonstrates his skills as a character actor. However, because Winchester focuses so much on Price’s personal experiences and evolution, Sarah Winchester winds up sidelined to supporting player status in her own story, in spite of the gravitas and screen presence that the Oscar-winning Mirren brings to the role.
Perhaps what’s most disappointing about Winchester is that it doesn’t dive deeper into the intriguing true story that inspired it. There’s a lot of misinformation and conflicting reports about the real Sarah Winchester, and a film about her could have played out as more of a psychological thriller that leaves audiences questioning (like Dr. Price does at first) how much of what they’re seeing is even real. Although Winchester toys with that idea, it reveals its hand of cards way too early to generate tension in that respect. The film likewise avoids exploring the bloody history of the Winchester company with any real depth, beyond surface level acknowledgements of its role in some of U.S. history’s atrocities (slavery, the Civil War, etc.). Winchester makes for a passable supernatural parable about the power of grief and emotional trauma, but fails to do anything interesting with its (somewhat contradictory) commentary on guns and violence.
Winchester, as indicated earlier, is largely Dr. Price and Sarah Winchester’s story and their scenes together (be they dramatic or scary in nature) are easily the strongest in the film. Snook and Scicluna-O’Prey, on the other hand, are given little to do here with their one-note roles as a mother in distress and a child preyed upon by malicious supernatural forces. The supporting cast is mostly restricted to the background, but character actors such as Angus Sampson (also known for playing the ghost-hunting Tucker in the Insidious films) and Eamon Farren (who made a splash as the disturbing Richard Horne in last year’s Twin Peaks: The Return) do get to make some fun appearances here.
In terms of craftsmanship, Winchester looks and feels like a cheaper version of a more aesthetically pleasing horror film along the lines of The Woman in Black. The Spierig Brothers and their production team, including their trusted cinematographer Ben Nott, are mostly effective in their use of eerie lighting and darker colors to create a sense of Gothic atmosphere, but struggle to hide the movie’s low budget design. Similarly, the Winchester mansion itself winds up feeling more like a collection of sets (which it is) and not the complex labyrinth of a building that the film is going for. When it comes to the jump scares, Winchester is mostly competent if unremarkable in the way that its constructs these creepy sequences. Unfortunately, what suspense the film manages to generate over the course of its first two acts dissipates in the final third, once Winchester goes from being quietly atmospheric to loud and over the top.
All things considered, Winchester isn’t so much terrible as it is a generic horror movie that wastes fascinating subject matter and is kept afloat by the performances of its leads, which outshine the film as a whole. Falling somewhere on the quality scale between The Woman in Black and The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (as far as similar movies from this decade go), Winchester is not really worth paying the full ticket price to see it on the big screen. That being said, those are still interested in spending a couple of hours in a haunted house with Helen Mirren may want to check it out when it eventually hits the home viewing market or becomes available to watch on cable.
Winchester is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 99 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements.
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