Updated: Feb 5
The most interesting thing about the majority of haunted house movies is not the ghosts. It is the house itself. Specifically, the way it is designed and the way the filmmakers shoot it to achieve the maximum amount of creepiness. Such is the case with Winchester, a period piece that pays lip service to ideas of guilt and morality, but is more about jump scares and loud noises on the soundtrack. Its central location is pretty incredible. Sadly, it does not fully take advantage of it.
Winchester takes place in 1906. Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is a psychologist with a drug problem and lots of debt. He is approached by a member of the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company with a deal: Dr. Price will be paid twice what he owes if he analyzes Sarah Winchester (four-time Oscar nominee (and winner for Best Actress in 2007 for The Queen) Helen Mirren) and declare her unfit to run the company. He immediately sets off for San Jose and the Winchester House, where he meets Sarah, her niece Marion (Sarah Snook), and Marion’s son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). He soon comes to learn that Sarah believes her house is haunted.
But enough about the plot. You will probably be able to figure out where it is going long before it gets there. The reason to see this movie is the Winchester House. Room piled on top of room, it is an impressive sight. Directors Michael and Peter Spierig (co-directors of this past Halloween’s Saw sequel Jigsaw) make sure to show several establishing shots just so viewers can get a good look at the outside of the house. The design of it does not make any sense, but that is what is so cool about it. It is constantly under construction, with rooms being built, rebuilt and taken apart at all times.
But while the outside is clearly shown, I never got a clear sense of the inside of the house. Not even as a confusing space. They show a couple of the hallways (which do look pretty interesting), but never allow Dr. Price to really explore the interior. Price is interested in the house, yet is only able to go into a few rooms because quite of few of them are nailed shut (for reasons I will not go into, but which are explained in the film). This is unfortunate and causes the film to focus more on its story, which takes itself very seriously and is predictably silly.
Winchester (91 minutes, not including the end credits) does try to be slightly more than a movie about people being creeped out by ghosts in a bizarrely designed house. Instead of the house itself being haunted, it is Sarah Winchester who is haunted. She is haunted by the ghosts of every single person killed by one of her company’s guns. At first, Dr. Price believes this to be a metaphorical haunting. Sarah feels guilty for creating weapons that have taken so many lives and is unable to forgive herself for that.
A more subtle and atmospheric take on this story could possibly have been effective. But the Spierig’s have made a haunted house movie, so they make sure viewers get their money’s worth in that department. This means Winchester and Price do not really get the opportunity to explore their grief and guilt because they are too busy being freaked out by ghosts.
At the outset, Winchester alleges that it is based on a true story. I am sure many will be dubious about that claim. My guess is part of the story is true and the more obvious elements were created for this film. In the end, it does not matter. Viewers do not come to a movie like this for facts. They come to be entertained and maybe scared a little bit. I personally did not find the film scary, but I also cannot entirely dismiss a film featuring a location as fascinating as Winchester House.
2¼ out of 5
Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester
Jason Clarke as Eric Price
Sarah Snook as Marion
Finn Scicluna-O’Prey as Henry
Eamon Farren as Ben Block
Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
Written by Tom Vaughan