Terror is Building
The best way to describe Winchester, The Spierig Brothers’ latest supernatural spook story, is hugely disappointing, the movie anything but a funhouse of scares. Loosely inspired by true events at the most haunted house in history, Michael and Peter Spierig’s fifth feature feels like a major missed opportunity, the film failing to capitalize on its intriguing premise and scary real-life roots.
You see, the Winchester Mansion is quite the architectural oddity, the property (situated in San Jose, California) a sprawling spectral labyrinth of dead ends, secret passageways and rooms that lead to nowhere: there are doors that open into walls, staircases that turn into themselves and windows that lead into floors, all connected by a intricate maze of hallways — heck, there’s even a séance room hidden somewhere inside. Sitting at an enormous seven stories high and holding some five hundred chambers, the manor is in a constant state of construction, all day and all night, all year round, with sections being built, then torn down, only to be built back up again. Strange, huh? Alas, instead of exploring some of the eerie mythology behind the eight-room farmhouse-turned creepy tourist attraction (yes, people actually visit this place now), the German-born Aussie siblings give us some dull hocus-pocus storyline that feels overly generic and contrived, the movie not making use of the structural curiosity and its uncanny design.
Set in 1906, the narrative follows fictional practitioner Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a troubled psychiatrist on sabbatical who’s been personally summoned to the Winchester domain. There he’s tasked with assessing the mental well-being of eccentric heiress Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren, playing the Woman in Black with a cold, hard stare), a grieving widow deemed too unfit to remain in charge of the Winchester Repeating Arms corporation by its board of directors, a company that she is still the majority shareholder of. Eric, as it turns out, is tormented by a tragedy of his own, the death of his wife Ruby (Laura Brent) — who was the love of his life — relying on drugs he’d procured from his profession to help ease his suffering and pain, the doctor, having adopted a hedonistic attitude, now addicted to Laudanum. And so, Eric, being in the midst of a financial crisis, is made an offer he can’t refuse, and thus accepts the job, reluctantly.
Arriving at the gargantuan Victorian home, our protagonist is greeted by Sarah’s young niece Marion Marriott (Sarah Snook), who lives there with her son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), Marion showing Eric to his quarters after giving him a brief tour of the titular estate. That very night, Eric witnesses a ghostly vision (this perhaps the only creative scare in the entire film), the man of science brushing it off as a mere hallucination, a side effect of the substances he’d been taking. As Eric conducts his assessment of Sarah’s sanity, this via multiple counseling-type sessions, he begins to learn more and more about the opulent homestead’s dark history, the house an elaborate tomb for all who’d fallen at the hands of the Winchester rifle, Sarah trying to atone for the sins of her family by housing lost and vengeful spirits, some of which wish to inflict harm on anyone who carries the Winchester name.
As Marion’s boy Henry slowly gets possessed by a mysterious and sinister entity (Eric, at one point, saving him when he tries to jump off a rooftop), the once-skeptical doctor begins to believe the bereaved woman’s outlandish ramblings, Sarah — who patrols the galleries every night like a penitentiary warden — having constructed an asylum for the dead. With Eric’s ‘apparitions’ becoming more vivid and real with each passing day, he and Sarah quickly discover that a malevolent spirit, one that’s able to bewitch and control others, has manifested within the dwelling’s walls, this phantasm (perhaps) more powerful than anything that had come before it.
Despite its ‘based on a true story’ tagline, much of Winchester has been fabricated, filmmakers skewing the truth for dramatic effect. With a soulless screenplay written by the Spierig twins, along with co-writer Tom Vaughan — who penned/ directed the B-grade chiller Playing House (2010) — Winchester features very little reality or fact, the narrative an ill-conceived snoozefest with next to no thrills. In other words, Winchester doesn’t really cater to its target audience, who generally get a kick out of watching blood-curdling genre pics — the scarier, the better! Instead, what we’re fed is a movie about rifles, one with some in-your-face political subtext, the flick commenting on the use of firearms and their harmful, destructive nature (on both society and the individual) — topical, considering the current gun law debate taking place in the U.S. But really, why favor hokey messages over building legitimate fear or suspense — isn’t that what paying patrons have come to see? Okay, we’re given cheap jump scares, creaking doors/ floorboards and the odd banging noise — hardly the stuff to write home about! The script is lifeless, the observations/ themes cliché, and the overall fright factor pretty much non-existent. Talk about firing blanks!
Aesthetically, Winchester is equally as deficient, the visuals far from inspired. While the Spierigs are known for being masters of the macabre, having cut their movie-making teeth crafting top-notch, high concept sci-fi thrillers such as Daybreakers (2009) and Predestination (2014), Winchester is a sizable step down (in quality), this the duo’s second stumbling block after last year’s so-so Saw revival, Jigsaw (2017). While Matthew Putland and his production design team have recreated the charnel house of horrors nicely — most of the interiors shot on soundstages at the Dockland Studios in Melbourne (my home city) — its layout is unclear and kinda hard to follow, with much of the geography poorly communicated and incredibly underused. This, in turn, leaves Winchester Mystery House a mystery to the befuddled audience; all I remember is a mishmash of dimly lit spaces and corridors that looked more-or-less identical! Twisting the knife further, the ghostly goons are boring and unoriginal, too. Yawn!
On performances, Dame Helen Mirren, The Queen (2006), is wasted as the ‘cursed,’ guilt-stricken Sarah Winchester, the former Oscar winner, who comes off as tired and disinterested, unable to breathe life into the thinly-written role; it’s a shame to see such a good casting coup squandered. Oh well, at least Mirren looks the part, the 72-year old dressed head to foot in mourning black, complete with an Edwardian cape, veil and laces. Jason Clarke, Everest (2015), fares a bit better as ‘damaged’ examiner Eric Price, a crippled skeptic who starts to question his own codes and beliefs after his seemingly simple and straightforward evaluation begins to go pear-shaped. Turning to the support cast, most seem to be cruising on autopilot. The lovely Sarah Snook (who did outstanding work in the Spierig’s Predestination) is passable as Sarah’s niece Marion, who’s still in a state of grief over her husband’s recent passing, the wide-ranging actress bringing out her character’s innate maternal nature, Marion determined to protect both her son Henry (a made-up person) and aunt from any sort of danger (physical or spiritual). Lastly, a mustached Angus Sampson — best known as Tucker in the Insidious series — is simply going through the motions as John Hanson, the Winchester house foreman, a player whose fate in the film is far from accurate.
True, moviemakers have taken a bit too much artistic license with the material here, but Winchester could have, and should have been better. Just look at the quality stuff the brothers have churned out in the past, and with very little cash, too, so don’t go blaming budgetary constraints! Ultimately, this is a picture that takes no creative risks; it’s hollow and pedestrian, an out-and-out misfire. Let’s just hope that the Spierigs bounce back from their current lackluster slump, the cinematic world will be better off for it.
Fun fact: in some territories, Winchester has been subtitled The House That Ghosts Built to avoid any confusion with the Winchester bros, Sam and Dean, from television’s Supernatural (2005), lol!
1.5 / 5 – Poor
Reviewed by S-Littner