Directors: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
Cast: Jason Clarke, Helen Mirren, Sarah Snook, Angus Sampson, Finn Scicluna-O'Prey, Eamon Farren, Laura Bent, Tyler Coppin
MPAA Rating: (for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:39
Release Date: 2/2/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 1, 2018
Like real estate, location is one of key tenets of horror movies, especially those of the haunted house variety. Winchester possesses a great location: the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. At the time of the movie's story in 1906, the Victorian mansion stands seven stories tall and features an eclectic style of architecture that's part maze, part optical illusion, and mostly the result of the whims of a reclusive elderly woman, who's racked with grief and remorse. This is an ideal setting for a ghost story, so it's almost unbelievable that the filmmakers are incapable of doing anything with it.
They manage to waste this location, though, by way of a predictable, shallow, and ultimately silly paranormal tale, in which ghosts are real, are capable of all sorts of supernatural shenanigans, yet are tremendously afraid of being shot. Yes, bullets can, apparently, hurt these ghosts, or at least a magic bullet can. By that point in the movie, though, we've been treated to so many familiar scare attempts and pseudo-philosophical mumbo jumbo that the notion that a ghost can be injured or killed with a rifle is almost refreshing. Well, it might have been refreshing, if it weren't so patently dumb.
The story revolves around Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a psychiatrist in San Francisco with a painful past and a present addiction to laudanum. Of course, in the eyes of the attorneys for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, he's the best candidate to assess whether or not the majority shareholder in the company is mentally fit to retain her control.
She's Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), who moved into the California mansion after the deaths of her husband, the company's founder, and daughter. Since then, she has hired a construction firm to renovate, demolish, and rebuild the house. The workers are employed throughout the day and night, building and demolishing and rebuilding no matter the hour.
The most we see of the house is near the beginning of the movie, as the not-so-good-or-well doctor arrives to be treated to a montage of the architectural quirks of the place. We note doors that lead to multiple-floor drops, windows that exist within the interior of rooms where no light can enter, and a stairwell that makes four turns where two would suffice. What appear to be cabinets in Sarah's study are actually service doors for the mansion's team of servants. A half-sized door leads to a little nook that leads to the basement, and there's a staircase that leads nowhere, stopping at a wood-planked ceiling.
To observe this place is to see the potential in all of the hidden corners, unseen rooms, and secret compartments that the house appears to possess. Somehow, though, the screenplay by Tom Vaughn and the fraternal directing team of Michael and Peter Spierig (credited as the Spierig Brothers) leaves the specifics of this mansion behind almost as soon as it's introduced during that brief tour. It becomes, incredibly, just an ordinary house. The story here, in which the ghosts of those who have been killed by the company's assorted firearms haunt Sarah and her surviving family members, might as well be set in any old house.
We're given multiple scenes of Eric wandering the place alone at night, hearing some strange noise, and being frightened by the sudden appearance of some ghastly figure in close-up. Eventually, Sarah's niece Marian (Sarah Snook) and the niece's son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey) get into the act. Henry appears to be the target of a particularly nasty spirit, whose back story includes fighting on the losing side of the Civil War, losing a pair of brothers in that conflict, and seeking revenge on the company that manufactured the winning side's rifles by committing a mass murder at its headquarters.
There is, of course, something to the central conceit of the ghosts here, who serve as a warning about the sole purpose of firearms. Sarah refuses to have any in the house (except when she has every model of the company's rifle—all of them loaded, for some reason—shipped to the mansion to lure the nasty ghost), and she has spent the recent part of her life trying to assuage her guilt for the bloodshed her company's products have caused. Marian offers the counterpoint—that a gun is only as bad as the person who holds it. As a potentially timely ghost story, it's as neutral and weak-willed as can be.
Winchester doesn't offer anything new, different, or even slightly interesting in its overly familiar story of the supernatural. The movie's one obvious quality—the mansion where the story is set—should be the star here, but it becomes as unexceptional and dull as the rest of the movie.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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