On paper you’d think the legendary Winchester house would make a great setting for a movie. It’s spooky, it has history, and considering the abundance of haunted house movies out there based on real events the home could very much have been one of the most epic horror movie settings ever. Sadly what we got instead is “Winchester”, a film with so much promise but so little inspiration put into its plot, design and presentation that it hardly deserves to be associated with the most haunted home in America. Just how bad is this film? Let’s take a deeper look. This is my review of “Winchester”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Winchester” takes place after the untimely deaths of William Winchester and his daughter, leaving real-life figure Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) to manage her family’s fortune made off of the sale of the Winchester repeating rifle. Haunted, figuratively and literally, by the ghosts of the victims of her family’s weapons, Sarah Winchester commands the continuous expansion of her lavish San Jose mansion that today is known as the Winchester Mystery House in order to appease the spirits. With her sanity in question, the board of the Winchester company hires psychologist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to evaluate the Winchester widow. Price, who underwent a near-death experience at the losing end of a Winchester firearm himself, starts to see the ghosts of the home but mistakes them as hallucinations due to an addiction to medication. As his evaluation progresses he begins to understand the relationship Winchester has with the spirits and when a new, more dangerous entity makes itself at home in the house all lives of those within its walls are put in danger.
One of the many flaws of “Winchester” is the subpar, unconvincing acting by even some of the biggest names in the cast. However at least one actor seemed to enjoy the experience and that is Academy Award winner Helen Mirren. Mirren plays Sarah Winchester and despite being presented with pretty much nothing to work with Mirren still manages to be the only redeemable part of this movie in terms of on screen performances. She makes the most of what she has to work with capturing the dark personality Sarah Winchester has adopted in the wake of family tragedy and the compassion she feels for the ghosts in her home. There’s a genuine sense of confusion and depression in how Winchester carries herself that makes her seem mysterious, lost and even a bit frustrated. I won’t say it’s a great performance, but considering what Mirren had to work with she did a fine job putting her best foot forward and making this character a lot more than it probably should have been.
That’s literally the only great performance in this film by any stretch. The only other big name in the film is Jason Clarke who is probably the biggest disappointment in a film littered with uninspired and C-movie worthy acting. Clarke he has proven to be a quality actor with good material, but he fails in any way to bring his complex and layered character to fully realized life. Psychologist Eric Price seems uninterested and uninvested in every scene and despite some hints at deeper emotion and a bit of humanity Clarke does nothing with it. He phones it in to put it harshly giving us the most basic of flawed skeptics and even his turn from questioning man of science to understanding believer in the paranormal feels forced. Even when the film tries to utilize an addiction to justify his skepticism Clarke fails to sell it. It’s just a bad performance by an otherwise decent actor who was better than this even in his worst work. We’ve seen this character before many many many times and Clarke’s Price is probably one of the most forgettable versions of the token skeptic you’ll ever see.
With a film this unwatchable it’s hard to find anything redeeming, but I did find some aspects enjoyable even if they were only reminders of how much better this movie could have been. While the story was flawed, I did enjoy how directors and co-writers Michael and Peter Spierig added to the legend of the Winchester Mystery House by presenting new elements that explain the hauntings of the home. The ghosts within the house aren’t just victims of the Winchester firearms, they are restless souls seeking closure and the rooms built in the movie are designed with the assistance of the ghosts to replicate where they passed away. It provided a rhyme and reason for the haunting and for the ever-expanding home’s strange setup. It’s this kind of storytelling that proved there was at least some potential to the Spierig Brothers’ take on this horror legend, but they never do anything with this mythology. It’s worked into the story and then used as a pretty ridiculous tool to allow the main villain the tools he needs to take his revenge. I also give the brothers credit for working in the famed earthquake that destroyed part of the house. Again it’s an element that proved this story COULD have been great and there was at least SOME inspiration behind the project, but instead we get the mess presented to us on the big screen.
I also enjoyed the villain of the film, whose identity I won’t spoil here. I felt the big baddy, a ghost that moves into the home and proves to be more dangerous than any spirit Sarah Winchester has encountered before, was memorable and contained a great backstory but he gets very little attention and almost feels forced into the story like many other elements that make this an uneven horror show. All the same once the mystery behind this entity comes to light we, the audience, immediately understand why he is so dangerous and I kind of wish this character had more time to develop and take center stage instead of taking almost an hour of the hour-and-forty-minute film to even consider introducing him to the fold.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Literally everything else. Aside from Mirren’s redeemable performance, added story elements and the villain nothing else about “Winchester” is enjoyable or impressive. The script is horribly bland and most of the characters are extremely forgettable. The worst part is there are signs of imagination in “Winchester” but nothing ever comes from it. The added elements to the homes legend are downplayed, the ghosts featured all look neat but are only shown very briefly and even the possession element of the film is unsatisfying. The whole movie just comes off as phoned in. It’s a cliché ridden bore fest that adds nothing to the genre and doesn’t even make its clichés interesting to watch. I found myself waiting, patiently mind you, for something, anything to kick the plot into high gear and it never did. The pace is off, the story is boring, and there’s very little in the way of substance to make “Winchester” a watchable film.
The biggest sin however is the lack of imagination of the actual house. The Winchester Mystery House is a confusing maze of a home that could very well have been the setting of a great story. Instead this movie actually makes the massive home feel small, claustrophobic and bland. That’s not what the home is. The Winchester Mystery House is an infamous maze of rooms and passageways that could have been the setting of a great ghost story. We don’t even get the satisfaction of an epic “oh crap I’m lost in the house” scene. Instead everyone seems to know exactly where they’re going, and the iconic confusing design of the house plays a minimal role in the movie’s plot. I must admit that I pictured the remake of “13 Ghosts” as I watched “Winchester” and found myself thinking a story like that could have been a great setup for a Winchester movie. COuld you imagine? A bunch of ghosts hunting down people in the home and the character having a hard time escaping because they don’t know where they can and can’t go. Doesn’t that sound like a much better story? The titular home that ghosts built is criminally underutilized and forsaken and what could have been a fun setting for vengeful spirits is simplified into a small and uninteresting local for a frankly scare-free movie that does no justice to the legacy of the Winchester Mystery House.
“Winchester”, to use a word, is disappointing. It’s a mess from start to finish with a horrid script, bland set design, no sense of pace and it’s bogged down with unimaginative storytelling that only shows glimpses of creativity that could have made for something much grander than what we got. It’s light on scares and sports some of the most unconvincing performance the horror genre has offered in a long time. This is the kind of movie that helped horror fall into mediocrity in the new millennium, and genre regulars have worked to hard to bring it back to its prime. The genre, and the legendary home that this movie was based on, are undeserving of a mess like this in this day and age. So much potential is wasted with “Winchester” to the point where it feels like nothing more than a cheep straight-to-video film made to cash in on a popular legend. What could have been an epic ghost story based on the most haunted home in America instead turns out to be a boring, uninteresting mess of a movie that, like many of the rooms in the actual Winchester house, feels pointless, contrived and unnecessary when it’s all said and done.