Winchester, directed by Peter and Michael Spierig, is another mock-horror film playing fast and loose with the phrase, “based on a true story.” These are the end credit facts: the Winchester mansion, located in San Jose, California, did in fact undergo around-the-clock construction, following Sarah Winchester’s wishes, after the death of her husband, William Wirt Winchester. The mansion is rumored to be the most haunted house in the United States, tenanted by the lost souls of those formerly killed by the Winchester rifle. However, the Spierig brothers do not offer any legitimate speculations with Winchester and, much like the mansion itself, the film lacks any sense of a master plan.
Jason Clarke plays the psychologist Eric Price, a walking malpractice of a doctor, who is less interested in coping with his past mistakes than he is in the allure of slowly poisoning himself. One of his defining character quirks is reciting a brief lecture on how fear is created in the mind, which he likes to use as a pickup line. It is clear he is shoveling for rock bottom with both hands.
By the grace of screenwriting convenience, Eric is approached by a representative of the Winchester arm dealership, which hopes he will give an unfavorable review of the widow Winchester’s mental health for a generous bribe. The bowler-hat wearing charlatan agrees without second thoughts, assuming the case is like an attendance grade and all he has to do is show up to be paid. Unfortunately for him, the spook factor gets turned up to a mild five and a half upon his arrival.
Marian Marriott, played by Sarah Snook, is a scarlet-haired niece with an out-of-place Australian accent. Marian greets Eric and informs him that Sarah Winchester, played by Helen Mirren, is quite sane. Never mind that the widow is clearly impersonating the Bride in Black from Insidious, or that she is a self-proclaimed medium who rehabilitates the ghosts entreating her hospitality. Before the first night is over, however, Sarah’s sanity will not be the only sanity called into question, especially since, for whatever reason, the spirits of the house get stronger at midnight. As soon as the clock strikes 12, one particular spirit begins to possess the niece’s younger son, Henry Marriott, played by Finn Scicluna-O’Prey.
At least the acting reflects the script as not even Mirren seems to take her role too seriously. When she is not fully shrouded in black lace and haunting the numerous hallways of the estate, Sarah actively communicates with the ghosts in her house, allowing them to use her body to illustrate the rooms they were murdered in. This turns the film into a series of disconnected skits that only she can connect, but rarely does. For some reason, the audience must be kept in the dark to simulate suspense.
Clarke does his best to add some depth to his otherwise dimensionless character, but it is a wasted battle. Eric routinely contradicts himself and falls into a contrived spiral of questioning reality. There is a love story that transcends death, which doubles as atonement for his personal demons, but it is completely shoehorned into the last 30 minutes of the film. Audience members will be forgiven for rolling their eyes like a pair of shutter blinds; the side-story is such a cliché it hurts.
The crux of Winchester’s shabby plot quickly becomes a race to discover which restless soul wants the cast dead. What ensues is a plethora of tactless CGI jump scares in lieu of actual character development or meaningful pacing. These are cheap gimmicks the Spierig brothers have often used as a crutch in their other attempts at horror, namely in the lackluster film Jigsaw, released late last year. It is disappointing how little the brothers have learned from their mistakes.
Of course, with a PG-13 rating, scares are pacified regardless of intent. But the hallmarks of a good horror film are sorely lacking from Winchester. It often feels like a movie sold on the premise of its elevator pitch alone, produced with the barebones necessities to emulate more successful Hollywood blockbusters. The end result is a movie preceded by scarier trailers and funnier one-liners from hecklers in the audience who have already grown tired of Winchester’s tropes.
The choice to characterize a house haunted by the victims of gun violence goes nowhere. With all the potential angles that could be worked out of the film’s foundation, the script instead reverts back to Eric’s mundane pickup line as its thesis. The house itself is a better character than the rest of the cast put together. However, it is just a large-scale prop relegated to the backburners of any meaningful ethical statements the screenwriters may put in the movie.
The grand design was there: this estate was a growing monument to a state-of-the-art weapon of mass murder. The widow Winchester was acutely aware of the suffering her family name had caused, and now it hovers over her, as palpable as the black veil she wears. Yet, the conscious choice to shy away from the true price of gun violence turns Winchester into a spineless cash-in on another famous landmark.