Director: Michael & Peter Spierig
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook
Run Time: 99 mins
Winchester may not be the best horror film to be released in recent memory, but it really is nowhere near as bad as critics and audiences are suggesting. Based on the fascinating premise of the Winchester mansion in San Jose, California, the film follows heiress Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), who is haunted by spirits in the mansion. She is constantly extending or removing parts of the house, even going to the extent of installing staircases that lead to nowhere in an effort to confuse said spirits. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a doctor who is hired to assess whether or not the elderly Sarah Winchester is fit to continue running her father’s company which she inherited, a gun manufacturing company.
This fascinating premise, coupled with the strong cast of Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke and Sarah Snook and The Spierig Brothers directing is a worthy collection of talent and bodes well for the film. The Spierig Brothers are interesting directors, consistently picking thoughtful projects and always inject some of their own ideas into their films. Predestination, in particular, is an original and twist-filled sci-fi that demonstrates their talent. This is why it was all the more surprising to see just how bad the reviews were.
Winchester gets off to a very shaky start with a terrible and unflattering introduction to Clarke’s character, who we first see dependent on laudanum and drink. It’s not exactly a great way to build sympathy for the character, particularly as Clarke is in fact, the main character in this film. Although Mirren is top-billed, Clarke is our eyes into this world, as we and him discover the Winchester mansion and the secrets it holds through the course of the film. Mirren isn’t in the film all that much but she does the best with what she’s given.
Luckily, the film picks itself up about half an hour in and the rest of the film is always entertaining. I actually think the film has some depth, which many people seem to have missed. The film questions the use of guns and has an anti-gun message, which is quite interesting and the ways in which it questions life after death and the act of death itself has some gravitas. Without getting into spoiler territory, the ending is quite satisfying and neatly ties up some of the loose ends of the film, without being heavy-handed.
The main problem with Winchester is its reliance on jump scares, which are not scary in the slightest. Dead people constantly appear on-screen and The Spierig Brothers use all of the poor tropes associated with this aspect of the genre that have plagued horror films in the past. It’s simply not enough to whet a horror fan’s appetite anymore and means that the more heady ideas have less weight as they are cheapened by the jump scares.
But, Winchester does offer some chills in alternative methods. There is one quite powerful scene mid-way into the film involving a dead character which is executed quite well. I also question whether or not this film is even meant to be a horror film. I found it to be more of a psychological thriller, which just happens to have a horror element of the supernatural within it.
Ultimately, the sheer entertainment value of Winchester and its exploration of some key themes mean that the film is just about passable. The film does have a myriad of problems, chiefly that the film isn’t scary and its negative, awkwardly handled characterisations at the beginning of the film. If you can look past these elements and dig a little deeper into the film, there is enough in it to enjoy.