The long-awaited arrival of Winchester is finally here and, unfortunately, we bring so-so news. Percolating for what seems like years, a film based on the California landmark steeped in the occult and paranormal eschews fact (no surprise) for cinematic contrivance to moderately entertaining effect.
Sarah Winchester (Played capably by Oscar winner Helen Mirren), is gripped with fear. As the heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune, she believes that all of the souls killed by her namesake firearms are after her for one reason or another. In the film, Sarah believes that she is charged with guiding these murdered spirits to resolution by constructing the rooms in which they died. Day and night, the construction continues on the labyrinthian edifice to anguish, as Sarah wanders the halls at night in black crepe.
“…all of the souls killed by her namesake firearms are after her…”
None of this information goes over all that well with the folks at the Winchester Rifle company, all of whom would rather take control of the business rather than have a ghost-chasing matriarch running the operation. They hire Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to visit Sarah to conduct an evaluation of her mental state. Of course, Doctor Price has his own demons. Mourning the death of his wife, he whiles away his nights in a drugged stupor, lounging in his parlor with ladies of the night. One doctor’s note from Price could effectively steal the company away from the old widow and make the Winchester shareholders even richer. With little on their minds but the Winchester fortune, the company sends the good doctor out to spend a week with Sarah.
Upon arrival, Price is greeted by Sarah’s niece (Sarah Snook) and her son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) who are staying with their relative after a family tragedy. Price begins his evaluation right away interviewing the staff before conducting conversations with Sarah herself. It is in these scenes, between Mirren and Clarke, that the film comes closest to something interesting. As the doctor tries to pick at Winchester’s brain, she easily calls out his parlor tricks and demands sincerity. These could have been wonderful moments had they been explored further. Instead, we get a cute scene or two with a button on them, then off to more shots of the exterior of the mansion.
Mirren is perfect as Sarah Winchester, so no worries there. The woman could read a phone book and be interesting, compelling even. She delivers a self-aware woman wracked with fear and guilt, who still hasn’t lost her faculties. Clarke is serviceable in the role of Doctor Eric Price. He hits all of the notes, yet there is some strange element of charisma missing. The character is flawed, that is not the issue. We are never really given a reason to like him. In fact, we are immediately given reasons to distrust him as the protagonist of the story.
“…a serviceable haunted house pic.”
With such a rich history, the writing, directing team of brothers Michael Spierig and Peter Speirig decide to focus, not on the house, not on Sarah’s history with the occult, not even with the actual lore of evading spirits with constant changes to the home, but on a totally new contrivance that doesn’t work. For the cinematic license to be validated, things need to at least make some kind of sense. As the story continues along, arbitrary stakes are laid to service a plot that feels strained, labored even. Much like the mansion itself, there is a lot to see but some of the passageways lead to nowhere. That’s not to mention the scares that rely heavily on musical stingers or sudden noises rather than genuine suspense and tension.
This was a squandered opportunity to dive deep into the mysterious story of Sarah Winchester and her obsession with the occult as a means to achieve peace of mind. What could have been a crackling psychological horror pic along the lines of Robert Wise’s brilliant The Haunting (1963), or even the more obvious yet still terrifying The Conjuring, ends up just being a serviceable haunted house pic.
Winchester (2017) Directed by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig. Written by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig, Tom Vaughan. Starring Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke.
Winchester is worth VOD (**).
Norm’s Rating System: Full Price (****), Matinee (***), VOD (**), Don’t Bother (*)