The latest horror film to be 'based on actual events', Winchester doesn't quite live up to the expectations set for one of America's most haunted houses.
Directed by the Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers, Predestination) and written by Tom Vaughan, Winchester's story goes into motion when San Franciscan doctor Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is hired by a representative of the Winchester estate to evaluate the sanity of the mansion’s owner, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Sent to the house via horse-drawn carriage, Price begins to suspect something is not quite well early on, and that Sarah’s obsession with spirits, namely those who were the victims of her namesake’s weapons, has a lot to do with it.
If you’ve ever seen one of many classic haunted house movies (such as The Haunting, The Uninvited, or House on Haunted Hill), there’s a lot in Winchester that’s going to seem familiar. Jump scares, possessed children, and segueys into the afterlife abound here; their placement and execution feeling excessively calculated and predictable.
For some, perhaps seeing Oscar winning actress Helen Mirren dip her toes into the horror genre is worth the price of admission. Her first foray into the genre at the age of 72, she portrays eccentric firearms heiress Sarah Winchester, an arthritic, phantasmic-like presence who firmly believes in ghosts, and that they have haunted her family’s estate for years. Mirren doesn’t enter the story until the 20-minute mark, but serves as the catalyst for the story’s more otherworldly aspects. As remarkable as it is to see an actress like Mirren take a role like this, Sarah Winchester is fairly one note in design, constantly popping up to remind the audience that scientific thought doesn’t apply in this universe. As a result it can’t help but feel like an easy paycheck role for such a brilliant actress.
Jason Clarke, a formidable actor who has done great work in titles like Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby among others, acts as the audience’s cipher into the events that take place as Dr. Eric Price. His character here is one founded on pure skepticism - to prove that there are no supernatural happenings going on, and collect his fee. Price does receive some dimension in the form of a backstory revolving around a brush with death resulting in a lost spouse, meant to be setup fodder for his character’s arc, and a revelation we can all see coming a mile away.
The biggest fault with Winchester is that it can’t quite decide what it wants to be. For a film that didn’t screen in advance for critics and released on Super Bowl weekend (a time when theaters aren’t exactly packed), it’s really not as bad as you’d think. The opening scene sets itself up as a Gothic period piece, complete with a retro title card and foreboding shots of the titular mansion. But before we know it, the tone shifts to placing as many jump scares, both playful and alarming, into the mix as possible.
What seemed like a Hammer-esque paranormal horror amounts to an extremely stale and tedious exercise of commodifying a real life ghost story with mixed results. Fortunately, it’s a great advertisement for the actual Winchester mansion, destined to be sold in DVD/Blu-ray form in its gift shop for years to come.