I’m sure I’m not the only one who started to fall out of love with horror movies when gore, splatter, and found-footage became the mainstay of the genre. Obvious visual horror has replaced the creepy and the spooky, and the word shock has become synonymous with gross. I miss the days when atmosphere was just as important as bloody violence, the days when a film could creep you out to the extent that it stuck with you for days on end (and not just because it made you feel nauseated).
On top of that I’ve always loved horror movies that come with the tagline ‘inspired by real events’ as a little thing to try and drag the creepiness into the real world and make you wonder if it could all happen to you.
So, naturally, when I heard the Spierig Brothers (Jigsaw, Daybreakers) were making a movie based on the Winchester House, I couldn’t help but be a little intrigued. I’ve always had a soft spot for supposedly haunted houses and the backstory of the Winchester House has always interested me.
For those who don’t know, the Winchester House was built from the ground up by Sarah Winchester using money left to her by her deceased husband, firearms magnate William Winchester. It’s said that a Boston medium told Sarah to move west and build a home for the spirits of those who had been killed by Winchester rifles. And she did, building a home in San Jose, California, where work on the house was continuous and almost nonsensical in design.
At one time, before the 1906 earthquake, the house stood at seven stories and had in excess of one hundred and sixty rooms, all put together in a way that made no logical sense; corridors to nowhere and stairways that lead to dead-ends. For years it has been speculated that the house is haunted by the victims of Winchester Rifles.
All in all, it’s the perfect setting for a horror movie.
The story follows doctor and part-time Laudanum addict Eric Price (Jason Clarke) as he’s hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to assess the mental state of their majority shareholder, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Price is handsomely compensated, of course, though it’s more than suggested that the company are paying him to reach a favourable conclusion for them.
At the house Price begins to experience a series of supernatural events, all made worse by Laudanum withdrawal, causing him to question whether it’s real or just his drug-addled mind playing tricks on him.
Sarah Winchester believes it all to be real, visited by ghosts at midnight each night and tasked with reproducing the rooms where the victims of Winchester rifles died so that their spirits can be trapped in the house and helped to pass over. Those that can’t or won’t pass over peacefully are shut in their rooms, using thirteen nails to seal the door.
There’s also a small side plot involving Winchester’s niece, Marion (Sarah Snook), and her young son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). But, honestly, save for a few short scenes where Henry is possessed, it doesn’t have much bearing on the plot.
Ultimately, Sarah and Price as tasked with dealing with a vengeful spirit who wants nothing more than to destroy the entire Winchester family. And, as it turns out, Eric Price is the only one capable of stopping the spirit as, he himself (spoiler alert), is also a victim of the Winchester Rifle.
That’s really all there is to it.
Overall Winchester isn’t a bad film, it’s just not very good. The worst part is that there is so much potential in the story and, in a way, it feels like the 100 minute runtime simply wasn’t enough to tell a decent story – though with the film as it stands, any longer and it would have become tedious.
Clarke and Mirren are really the only thing that hold Winchester together but this just seems to be a massive waste of their talents. But, most of all, it’s a waste of the Winchester House itself which more than deserves to be seen as a character in its own right. Considering the strange house is not only the setting but a major plot point, we’re shown little very little of it. I imagine this has something to do with the film being shot in Australia rather than San Jose, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.
The film wastes the opportunity to make the audience question events and wonder if the spooky happenings are real or just symptoms of Price’s Laudanum withdrawal in the opening scene, before the doctor even arrives at the house, by showing the audience that it is.
Winchester shoots itself in the foot and spends the rest of its runtime limping towards the finish line.
Then there’s the plot twist, the real reason why Eric Price was chosen to visit the Winchester House. It’s not a very interesting twist and, really, all it does is serve to set up a way of finishing the final confrontation. Maybe with a little more time it would have been more than a plot convenience but it’s not even revealed until at least 40 minutes into the film.
And, of course, no review of Winchester would be complete without mention of the film’s commentary on gun violence. There’s an anti-gun message prevalent throughout but it ultimately falls short when a gun is used as the final solution to the issue – gun violence to make up for gun violence. It seems a little shoddy and, given the unfortunate time of the film’s release, it’s more than a little uncomfortable.
There are a few good jumpscares, though most are cliche and easily anticipated. Having seen the film twice now, there’s little rewatch value and nothing new to discover. In fact, rewatching makes all the twists all too apparent, killing any lingering sense of intrigue.
As much as I love both Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke, there’s just too much about the film that makes it bland and boring. Pacing is a major issue, moments on the edge of your seat are short lived and the rest of the time is a slump, waiting for something to happen. While I’m usually a fan of build-up and suspense in horror movies, Winchester dramatically misses the mark.
Ultimately, it’s not worth the cost of a cinema ticket and best left until it’s shown on TV.
3 Out Of 10
Claire is a writer, an amateur photographer and a lover of all things fantasy and sci-fi. A self-professed geek, she loves video games, movies, comics, and movies based on comics. Anything with dystopian themes, apocalyptic settings or supernatural creatures is bound to catch her attention.