Helen Mirren wears a widow’s funeral veil for much of this supernatural spine-tingler, possibly in anticipation of its box-office prospects. Billed as being “inspired by actual events,” Winchester draws on a fascinating true story but then simplifies and sensationalizes it to fit creaky, clunky horror conventions. The joint directors and co-writers are Australian twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, who scored critical acclaim with their 2014 sci-fi thriller Predestination, then rebooted the Saw slasher franchise last year with the poorly reviewed but commercially successful Jigsaw.
More in the vein of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow than a full-blooded horror yarn, Winchester is an underpowered gothic ghost story that promises more sophisticated shocks and psychological depths than it ultimately delivers. In commercial terms, the movie feels fated to fall between two stools, not scary enough for hardcore genre fans but not original enough to pull in a general audience. It opens in U.S. and U.K. theaters this weekend with worldwide rollout to follow through February and March.
Most of the action takes place in the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Now a state monument and tourist magnet, this sprawling superstructure contains roughly 160 rooms, staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open on to walls, as well as other gloriously bizarre features. The house was an epic work-in-progress passion project for widowed heiress Sarah Lockwood Winchester, who inherited a vast fortune from her husband, William, whose family founded the fabled Winchester rifle company.
According to folklore, the superstitious Sarah designed and supervised almost 40 years of round-the-clock construction work on the Mystery House, believing its twisty corridors to be haunted by the spirits of people killed by Winchester rifles. Some historians have suggested more mundane explanations for her peculiar behavior, but naturally this lurid interpretation is the one with the most purchase in popular culture, inspiring the plots of numerous novels, plays, comic books and TV thrillers before this big-screen iteration.
Locked in a power struggle with Winchester board members to retain her stake in the company, Sarah (Mirren) agrees to submit to an assessment from dissolute, laudanum-addicted, grief-stricken San Francisco psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke). The conniving board promises Price a handsome payday if he declares the eccentric widow mentally unfit. But it soon transpires that Sarah has her own agenda, inviting Price to visit because she believes his personal experience of a Winchester-linked tragedy will help her purge the house of malevolent forces, notably the vengeful ghost of former Confederate soldier Ben Block (Eamon Farren), who has a nasty habit of possessing her great nephew Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) in scenes that borrow heavily from The Exorcist.
The true story of Sarah Winchester and her Mystery House should be a gift to skilled filmmakers, and in fairness, the suspenseful setup of Winchester is charged with ominous portent. Sadly, soon after Price and Winchester meet, the plot plateaus into a series of routine shocks and familiar haunted-house tropes. With their recurring use of tolling bells, creaking doors, jump scares and creepy nursery-rhyme songs, the Spierigs leave no well-worn horror cliché unmilked. By the midway point, they appear to have exhausted their limited repertoire of tricks and start gearing up for a noisy, ridiculous, effects-heavy climax.
In fairness to the production team, Winchester is a visual treat, its palette aglow with bronze and turquoise tints that suggest colorized Victorian postcards. Aside from three days of shooting at the real Mystery House, the Spierigs filmed everything in their native Australia, conjuring up the house’s mind-warping MC Escher interiors using soundstages and visual effects. Mirren always brings a touch of class, of course, even to deluxe schlock like this. But Clarke is something of a blank leading man, while the secondary characters are mostly pale phantoms sleepwalking through a thinly drawn plot.
Production companies: Blacklab Entertainment, Imagination Design Works
Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Eamon Farren, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Laura Brent
Directors: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Screenwriters: Tom Vaughan, Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Producers: Tim McGahan, Brett Tomberlin
Cinematographer: Ben Nott
Editor: Matt Villa
Production designer: Matthew Putland
Music: Peter Spierig