IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 99 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1906 San Jose, California, laudanum-addicted Dr Eric Price, who is grieving over the death of his wife, is asked to visit the elderly Sarah Winchester in her large house which she seems to be constantly building, and assess her because she could be unfit to manage the Winchester company. The widow of famed gun manufacturer William Winchester and also having suffered the loss of their child, she’s convinced that the house is haunted by the ghosts of those who died at the hands of Winchester firearms. Eric rubbishes the idea of ghosts, but soon he too seems to hear strange sounds and see nightly apparitions….
Watching a film supposedly based on fact in which you know some of the said facts can often result in disappointment when stuff is altered and invented, so I wasn’t much pleased with Winchester right from the word go in its depiction of outwardly normal, sociable Sarah Winchester as a sinister character restricted to wondering about her ever changing house in mourning gear. She wasn’t even building the house to protect herself and others from ghosts, she was building it as a home for the many ghosts of victims of Winchester rifle bullets which were never actually threatening, which is a little different and more interesting. And it was also immediately obvious that the film was sidelining the fascinating historical character of Sarah in favour of a fictional one, yet another protagonist who’s haunted by his own demons but must summon them to fight new ones. I guess the idea of Eric being constantly doped up on laudanum is one that has potential, but not long after he arrives at the house the laudanum is taken away from him and that’s that. Much wasted potential of a similar nature also exists elsewhere in this initially quite intriguing and even a little bit frightening haunted house chiller which soon deteriorates into a series of repetitive scares which are nearly all the same, and plotting which is either highly predictable or rather poor.
But, as long as you dismiss all expectations of what the film ought to be and do your best to enjoy what it actually is, it’s still possible to enjoy at least the first half of Winchester, not least because of its setting which is beautifully photographed by cinematographer Ben Nott in the manner of a Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe picture[well, the main character is called Eric Price], though his favourite trick of having light, usually yellow, streaming in from stained glass windows into blue-dominated hallways gets a bit tired after a while. And even here, if you know about the actual real-life house which is extremely cramped [far too cramped for shooting in], full of bizarre architectural details like staircases that lead to nowhere, doors to nothingness, and peculiarly designed rooms, what you see in the film is rather more spacious and a bit more conventional, though Michael and Peter Spierig do wring some creepy atmosphere out of the maze-like, ever-evolving house. Overall though, the previously promising filmmaking siblings who peaked most impressively with Predestination now seem more destined for mediocrity, first with their dreary, often ridiculous Saw entry that didn’t even deliver much of the gloating sadism that is the main reason for that franchise to exist, and now with this old school ghost story which seems to be partly aiming for a Woman In Black crossed with The Others kind of approach but only sometimes succeeds.
The opening scene of the nocturnal sighting of a ghost and then Henry, the young son of Sarah’s relative Marion Marriott who’s living in the house with Sarah, becoming possessed with the usual white eyes, does get things off to a good start, and then we’re introduced to our ‘hero’, stoned out of his head with some hookers. Well, his wife hasn’t long died, and as the film progresses we gradually find out more and more about him, such as the fact that he was shot with a Winchester rife himself. Supposedly Sarah specifically requested that he be the one to access her, and Marion just thinks that he should say that she’s fine and that’s that, but he’s convinced that Sarah has gone a bit mad for saying that she sees all these ghosts and forever building this odd house. He soon encounters some eerie happenings himself, including the old trick of having a mirror moved back and forth several times and you just know it’s going to reveal a ghost, and a rather amusing rather than scary bit when a monstrous finger peaks out of a drainpipe. But like all good sceptics worth their salt, he refuses to believe what he’s just seen.
So far reasonably good, but mild tedium then sets in when all the film seems to do thereafter is alternate scenes of wordy exposition with “BOO” moments. Much of the former is given to Helen Mirren, who does seem to be having a lot of fun with her part though has a somewhat stiff American accent, something that her two Australian co-stars [well, it’s a largely Australian-made film] Jason Clarke and Sarah Snook also struggle just a little bit with, though their performances are otherwise fine. The scares are mostly predictable because everything becomes silent for a bit and the thrill of anticipating when the actual moment’s going to occur dissipates when the film’s done the same damn thing ten times. There are far too many false frights too and they increasingly seem like padding. The film really does run out of things to do, and by the time the incredibly convenient [I won’t reveal it, but you’ll see what I mean and may very well groan] way to destroy the most powerful and dangerous of the ghosts was revealed I had almost lost interest.
The most hair-raising scene is when the possessed Henry is blasting away with a rifle at a thin wall with Sarah cowering in terror on the other side. There’s a real sense of terror here. But too often the Spierigs just throw stuff in because it’s worked many times before, such a rocking chair rocking by itself, while not seeming to be aware that context is equally important. What with the Winchester rifle being a controversial firearm that came equipped with a self-loading mechanism allowing its users to dish out death more efficiently than ever before, the whole film has a strong anti-gun message which is continually in your face but it’s not one that you see too often, especially in a period piece, and I can’t say that I was bothered about it. For me, it gave the goings-ons some weight, and I like to think that most reasonable people would agree with it, though the script doesn’t seem to be aware of a particular irony – or is that just a contradiction – in the climax which goes against what it’s trying to say. But also praiseworthy is the comparative lack of CGI – I noticed some here and there but the only glaring bits were a couple of terrible shots of parts of the house collapsing during the 1906 earthquake. The many random ghosts who appear and then disappear often look like zombies, but then they are of people who’ve been shot so I guess that’s no surprise. Sometimes the glimpses are extremely quick, which is quite effective, but I wish the Spierigs had given them more stuff to do than loom out at you to the usual loud musical sting.
Winchester definitely has its praiseworthy aspects – Peter Spieirig’s very Joseph Bishara-style score is also pretty good – but all in all it’s just another rather bland and mechanical PG-13 horror movie, yet another modern chiller that seems to be afraid to venture outside the realm of jump scares and get really scary or interesting. There’s a really good and potentially quite terrifying film to be made about Mrs Winchester and her house. Maybe somebody will make it one day.