Winchester | The Spierig Brothers | February 2nd, 2018
The story of Sarah Winchester is, to this day, still steeped in mystery. After the death of her husband, William Winchester, she gained a massive fortune and majority share in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. They famously manufactured the eponymous Winchester rifle, or “the gun that won the West”. When Winchester claims it is “inspired by true events”, it’s one of the few cases in horror films where this is entirely warranted. The house itself, officially called The Winchester Mystery House, is often cited as one of the most haunted places in America. It’s been the subject of numerous documentaries, ghost-hunting shows, and other forms of media. The architecture, the labyrinthine floor plan, and the massive scale of the mansion have captured the imagination of enthusiasts for over a century. Point being: How can you have all of this beautiful macabre lore, and mess up a film about it so badly?
That is the recurring theme of this film and review – prospects and sewn seeds of promise, with no fruition. There’s a running theory in my mind that period horror films are actually more effective than those set in the present day. They provide nice cultural bookends that allow a narrative to fit more comfortably inside the (artificially) limited scope. Also, it makes suspension of disbelief a bit easier, as actions taken by characters seem more rational in the absence of modern technology. Fear has always been linked to the unknown, and in the present day, that doesn’t really exist. The problem is that Winchester sets up an alluring vintage aesthetic and does absolutely nothing with it. The set design, obviously based off of the real house, looks good enough. The modest $3.5 million budget was well-used, despite not really being enough to emulate the house’s 100+ rooms. Real footage taken at the house seems to be mixed with a composite facade, since it was surrounded by fields in 1906, not Silicon Valley. It just seems that a couple more million might have provided a more sprawling scope and improved some of the scenes that take place in redundant locations.
Which brings us to the actual “scares” of Winchester. Initially, I had expected a set up of a man going mad and questioning his reality, as part of the plot revolves around Jason Clarke’s character being addicted to prescription drugs, triggered by his past. The problem is that the lapse in sanity never really happens, and we are instead we are met with the same, generic jump scares that have plagued horror for at least a couple decades. There’s no grand puzzle like the film’s advertising seemed to suggest. And, despite being a ghost story, the ghosts themselves aren’t very enthralling. How many more ghost creature designs featuring people with cracked faces and white eyes must we endure? This is where Winchester falls severely short of other period piece haunted house movies like The Woman in Black and Crimson Peak (not even comparable really). Throw in a textbook “the child becomes possessed and sings a lullaby”, an almost literal example of Chekhov’s gun, and you’ve got every lame horror movie from the past. It’s a shame, because the absolute best things about Winchester are Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren’s performances. Their dialogue and on-screen interaction is leagues above what the movie actually deserved. Even the film’s underlying critique of gun culture in America (which became even more relevant after the Parkland school shooting in Florida during the film’s box office run) hits soft on the back of such a generic plot. It just isn’t good.
It might do alright for a Netflix night in with someone who is more gullible, but don’t expect your mind to be blown or pants to be soiled. I don’t know if it’s solely studio politics that create these watered-down horror movies, but despite the quality of Winchester, it’s still made almost seven times its budget back at the box office. From a connoisseur of spooky things, it just hurts a little more this time when the filmmakers had access to such rich resources for a good movie.