The story goes that a woman ravaged by grief and plagued by spirits was driven to create one of the strangest and most haunted houses in the United States. After losing both her infant daughter and beloved husband to disease, Sarah Winchester believed she was cursed by the family fortune made off of rifles that played a role America’s bloody expansion of the West and in the gruesome battles of the Civil War. She lived out her days in a home where stairways led directly into ceilings, secret passages hid, and doors could open on blank walls, or out into nothing, risking one falling violently from a second story into the yard below. The Winchester Mystery House and its maker has fascinated ghost-story lovers for decades.
Sadly, Winchester is a movie destined to disappoint them.
Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester. And though she brings a captivating strength to the film, she is not its lead. Directing duo Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig instead invent an interloper to invade Sarah’s home and strange routine of nightly séances. Enter Jason Clarke as Eric Price, a drugged up doctor with a tragic (and tragically predictable) backstory. Dr. Price has been called upon by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to examine the eccentric widow, and declare her crazy so that they can oust her from the family business. But as soon as Price walks the through the house’s labyrinthine passageways, he begins to experience paranormal activity, and doubt his own sanity.
Early on, lip service is paid to the history of the Winchester Mystery House. A tour of the house comments on the ballroom constructed largely without nails, notes the around-the-clock construction by a loyal team of carpenters, and the skylight confoundingly found in the middle of a floor. Later, a mythos will be built around Sarah’s known obsession with the number 13. But here, she and her curious construction play as backdrop to Price’s story, which is the stuff of predictable jump scares and tired clichés. A mirror moves on its own, and you know it’ll shift to reveal a scowling spirit. A scar is revealed, and of course it’ll prove pivotal in the finale. And if you’re familiar with the history of the Winchester Mystery House, even the chosen setting of 1906 carries a big fat spoiler. All of this predictability blends with uninspired ghost designs to make a horror movie that’s woefully lacking in scares, and definitively dull.
Winchester is an absolute waste of the Winchester Mystery House. The place has a rich mythos that could have been boldly explored, and in a way that could easily comment on America’s modern gun debate. But the Spierigs will do nothing so daring. Instead, their and Tom Vaughan’s script tromps all over Sarah’s footsteps to cobble together a new and haphazard mythos, that contradicts itself without concern. One moment, you’ll be warned about the harmful ghosts who lurk behind locked doors. But once those doors are supernaturally unlocked, these spirits will pop up only for convenient jump scares and to help Sarah for reasons the movie won’t bother to address.
Winchester offers a mediocre ghost story that papers over the history and mysteries of one of America’s most curious haunted houses. It does the Winchester Murder Mystery House, Sarah Winchester and even Helen Mirren a grave disservice. Despite being partially shot on location at the actual Winchester House, the film fails to capture its eerie beauty and awe-inspiring strangeness. Rather than using the film as a means to explore an enigmatic figure of American history, Winchester uses Sarah as an entry point to spin a bland tale of one man’s guilt and personal demons. Also, they lazily throw a creepy kid in mix, and run that device right into the ground. Why not.
Though Clarke is game to play the frightened fool, he makes for a forgettable lead. Meanwhile, Mirren, brewing with pain, resilience, and remorse, is cast aside as a supporting character. But even more vexing than this may be the way the Spierigs chose to shoot her. Every close-up is in soft-focus, a device used for decades to soften women’s wrinkles and make them look younger. Here it feels insulting and frankly sexist. Mirren isn’t playing a love interest or a sexual dynamo. She’s portraying a haunted widow who is fighting for the safety of her remaining family. Why must she be subjected to misogynistic beauty standards, being blurred to look younger and softer? Every time the camera cuts from Clarke to her, we jump from crisp focus to a slightly blurry one that undermines her every expression, and makes it impossible to lock onto her eyes. Scene by scene, her completeness is denied us.
Simply put, Winchester shoots itself in the foot at every opportunity.
Winchester is now in theaters.
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