The experience of watching Winchester is like trying to have a layered, adult conversation with a fellow horror movie fan—say, on how a suspense and mood-heavy tone and narrative approach supported by relatable and strong thematic connective tissue can create a palpable sense of dread in the audience—only to be constantly interrupted by a hyperactive and insecure toddler who thinks the only way for the genre to put asses in seats is to put on a cheap Halloween mask, suddenly jump two inches away from my face, and yell “OOOGA BOOGA!!” The conversation with the adult has promise, but the annoyance of the toddler will eventually wear out even the most forgiving genre fan.
I don’t know if the adult in the conversation represents the directors, the Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter), who previously demonstrated at least a satisfactory hold on pure genre filmmaking with Undead and Predestination, and if the toddler is a studio that has absolutely no faith in the sustained focus of their audience, or if this kerfuffle is a joint effort. All I can do is to judge the final product on its own merits. The overall murky outcome is a bit of a shame, because Winchester possesses an intriguing premise: people killed by gun violence, most of them innocents, come back as vengeful ghosts to haunt and destroy the lives of those who made a fortune manufacturing and selling the weapons. Even though the story takes place at the turn of the 20st Century, merging a classic haunted house story with the always-relevant (At least in the good-ole USA) gun debate is an intriguing start.
“Inspired by true events,” which means that a table moved two inches on its own in real life and the screenplay translated that into a house overcrowded with mega powerful ghosts that can possess humans willy-nilly, Winchester takes place in 1906. Eric (Jason Clarke), a drug-addicted psychiatrist with mysterious personal demons in his past, is recruited by the major shareholders of the famous Winchester Rifles to assess the mental health of reclusive company heir Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Sarah has been building a massive house for decades, constantly adding rooms that no one uses, and claims that she’s surrounded by vengeful ghosts. The shareholders’ wish is for Eric to declare Sarah insane, so her majority control of the company can be taken away from her.
However, when Eric arrives at the mansion, a gothic labyrinthine mess of a hundred rooms that’s any production designer’s wet dream, he finds a calm and collected woman, reasonable and astute, who just happens to believe that ghosts of Winchester rifle victims are out to destroy her family and the house is her only chance at a form of penance. At this point, co-screenwriters the Spierigs and Tom Vaughan have the perfect opportunity to play with the audience’s expectations as they try to make sense of Sarah’s situation along with Eric. Like Robert Wise’s timeless haunted house classic The Haunting, are the ghosts real, or is Sarah’s guilt materializing itself into illusions of … nevermind, the ghosts are real.
Winchester is so worried that the audience might doze off for a second, that it cannot wait to blow its spooky CG/make-up ghost load all over the place. They don’t even allow the first act to finish before making it clear that the ghosts are real, their raison d’etre to randomly jump into the character’s faces like volunteers at a makeshift haunted house attraction at the poor side of a Midwestern suburb, while occasionally possessing Sarah’s fresh-faced PG-13 horror movie cliché grandson (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) to get into spooky shenanigans. Step right up folks, and get your jump scares! We got the “mutilated ghost slides into frame,” “the creepy child ghost appears out of nowhere after waiting for the camera to pan to the same empty spot five times,” “human character CG morphs into a ’90s Resident Evil zombie,” and of course, the always-reliable “cat out of a garbage bin”-level fake-out.
The film’s trump card, its sole chance at being taken at least semi-seriously, is the casting of the great Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester. By taking the material with utmost professionalism and not showing her hand at how goofy the screenplay really is, she’s able to deliver even the hokiest exposition dump dialogue with grace and dramatic heft. Jason Clarke is game to at least give some depth to his cardboard character, the token skeptic found in every haunted house flick, but the Spierigs’ insistence on never giving him a couple of minutes of personal development before using him as a crash test dummy for jump scares always gets in the way. The design of the house is always visually appealing, the Spierigs at least have a tangible handle on the overall dreary gothic mood, and the story’s themes at least try to attain some moral complexity, but the film’s cynical desperation to attract the Conjuring and Insidious crowd creates a muddy mess. It could have been a torchbearer for the original Haunting, but ends up a slightly smarter cousin to the crappy 1999 remake instead.
Directors: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Writers: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig, Tom Vaughan
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Emm Wiseman, Angus Sampson, Bruce Spence
Release Date: February 2, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.