UK Release Date: 2nd February 2018
Runtime: 99 minutes
Director: The Spierig Brothers
Writer: Tom Vaughan, Spierig Brothers
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Angus Sampson, Eamon Farren
Synopsis: A psychiatrist is sent to assess the eccentric widow who owns the Winchester Rifle company, who claims spirits are asking her to expand her house with unusual rooms and bizarre staircases.
It’s not often that a horror movie attracts an A-list cast. Thus, when trailers began to appear for Winchester, featuring acting royalty Helen Mirren in the leading role, as well as top character actor Jason Clarke, the prospects looked bright for this California-set ghost story. Unfortunately, the latest venture from Jigsaw directors The Spierig Brothers is every bit as under-powered and unimaginative as their revival of a decade-old torture porn franchise. The spookiest thing about it all is how they convinced the cast to sign a deal.
Mirren, however, did sign a deal and portrays the eccentric Sarah Winchester, who has inherited a majority share in her namesake rifle-making company after the death of her husband. She has funnelled most of her time into directing building work on her San Jose mansion, which is constructed in unusual directions and “without rhyme or reason”. Mrs Winchester claims spirits are compelling her to continue this work, which prompts the Winchester board to hire psychiatrist Eric (Clarke) to assess whether she is of sound enough mind to run the company.
There’s an atmosphere and intrigue to the early stages of Winchester, as Clarke begins to fall under the spell of the strange house. The film makes the audience wait for Mirren’s arrival and, when she finally appears, she is somewhat ethereal and ghost-like herself, dressed all in black and wearing a veil over her face – resembling the spectre in The Woman in Black. Within minutes, though, Mirren and Clarke are in a room talking about “shadows”, with doors slamming and desiccated corpses appearing every time the camera pans into an area of space.
The well-established modern ghost story convention of lengthy quiet periods, followed by deafening noises, has suffered a real desensitisation effect over the years and it renders Winchester‘s scares entirely toothless. The rhythm and grammar of these tricks is now so ingrained into viewers that this film lacks even the ability to provoke the signature jump of surprise. It simply isn’t surprising or scary in any way, however many creepy images the Spierigs chuck in front of the camera.
One of the more interesting elements at play in Winchester is the potential for a gun control subtext. That’s something the film seems to be aware of, but the lacklustre script has no idea how to convey that message, muddling it in with the arrival of one psychotic spirit rather than analysing its cumulative effect on the dozens of phantoms stalking the hallways of the mansion. The script seems to prefer delving into the entirely uninteresting back-story of Clarke’s character, who has a unique and altogether too convenient connection to the rifle.
A little subtext would have gone a long way and could have helped to create a more compelling tale behind its generic horror set pieces. As it is, Winchester is a miserable and plodding journey through a haphazard house that promises intrigue and befuddlement, but only succeeds in inducing boredom. The big name casting of Helen Mirren does little to suppress the unrelentingly grim tedium of this story, which has the beginnings of a moral context, but is only interested in ghosts as ghoulish evil presences that jump out of dark corners. Boo!
Pop or Poop?
The Spierig Brothers squander the potential of an intriguing story, inspired by real life, in Winchester. They opt to deploy standard horror tricks, but have nothing original up their sleeve, despite the potential for a context that could’ve given the ghosts and ghouls a raison d’être beyond giving Jason Clarke a bit of a fright every few minutes.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.