Directed by The Spierig Brothers Starring Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke Film Review by Brian Degning
The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, is considered by many people as the most haunted house in North America. It was the former residence of Sarah Winchester, widower of firearm magnate William Winchester and heir to the companies’ massive fortune. After her husband’s death, she used her wealth to continually build many elaborate rooms and extensions which she believed housed the spirits of everyone killed by one of her companies’ weapons. Until her death in 1922 construction continued almost nonstop to give, she believed, the spirits of those gunned down a place to rest. If that is not a killer premise for a horror film, I do not know what is. Add to that the casting of the great Helen Mirren, with support of the always engaging Jason Clarke, and this had all that was needed to be a great horror classic. Unfortunately, like a good meal, having all the right ingredients doesn’t do any good if you can’t cook and herein lies the problem with Winchester.
Almost from the off jump-scares are the order of the day and, like every attempt at frights, they are served often and undercooked. In the right hands this may not have been the worst thing, James Wan of the ‘Insidious’ franchises manage to make the jump scares in his movies earned and as such effective but here the Spierig Brothers, fresh off the back of the ‘Jigsaw’ reboot, seem to think that a loud noise and a random extra in makeup is what counts as horror. In fact, the entire film is a wide buffet of almost every horror cliché imaginable; ghosts in the reflection of a mirror, a scary child, creaking doors, the house shaking at random etc. Now if these were executed well then there is every chance this could have made for a self-aware, fun haunted house flick. Instead the film takes itself very seriously which, ironically enough, makes its attempts at scares laughable.
Helen Mirren is also wasted, her character could have been layered, haunting, mysterious and charming, a woman unsure if the ghosts of her past are real or imagined but, in the hands of these filmmakers, what we get is a one-dimensional exposition machine who is unable to add anything other than distant looks and the occasional jerking movement to a paper-thin script. Jason Clarke suffers from the poor script as well, although he manages to at least make his character likeable and flawed. The supporting characters in the film have even less to do and it feels at times like they are simply there to be thrown, frightened or possessed for a very cheap attempt at a scare.
The only positives to take from the film are that the production design is very nice to look at as is some of the imagery but, again, this is undercut by jarring editing and some unusual framing. The pacing is also poor and at times feels like you are watching the same scenes over and over without getting anywhere.
Possibly the worst crime this film commits is in its ending which, without spoiling anything, manage to undermine any of the themes or messages the film, very ham fistedly, tries to put forward. It is an infuriating experience as somewhere in here are the bones of an interesting film. Grief, loss and the introduction of guns into modern conflict are all things that should have been forefront of the drama, instead they are brushed aside in favor of cheap scares and a ridiculous ending.