Sarah Winchester was the real life widow and heiress to the Winchester Estate, and her husband was William Wirt Winchester, the treasurer of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Her story has become legend throughout the years and – even in her own time – tales of ghosts living within her home have given her a notorious reputation. With her monstrous inheritance she constructed The Winchester Mansion, an unorthodox labyrinthine house that she continued to build upon for over 40 years. It began as an eight-room homestead and germinated into a sprawling 100-room palace.
The Spierig Brothers (Predestination, Undead) follow up their disastrous entry into the Saw franchise – Jigsaw – with a recovery of sorts by the way of Winchester, a handsome-looking film that carries on the traditional haunted-house formula in the vein of The Woman in Black and The Changeling (among others). Exploiting the more scandalous elements of Sarah Winchester’s story, the film presents a straightforward narrative, borrowing heavily from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We follow Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who has been sent by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to conduct a psychological evaluation of the reclusive widow (Helen Mirren). Upon his arrival he is faced with characters and circumstances that suggest a case of psychosis, but, of course, before long he is head-deep in an epic ghost story, of which only absolute belief of the paranormal will help him survive.
The so-called purpose of each phase of construction to the mansion and the theories behind the hauntings are public knowledge (a simple Google search will reveal all to anyone inquisitive enough to look), however, Winchester benefits from absolute ignorance and will resonate more on an unsuspecting audience. And while I won’t take away from the mystery, I will note that the film arrives at a very interesting time when the issue of gun control is a hotly debated point of discussion in the United States. As a matter of fact, the timing of the film’s release seems fortuitous indeed.
It is not a great film, however, and its reliance on tropes can make it an arduous watch. Victorian and Edwardian-era ghost films have become so generic that very few are genuinely effective. The genre can be a cliché-riddled production line, with little to offer in terms of originality. And in today’s age of horror, it is the contemporaries like Insidious and The Conjuring that are dishing out the unadulterated thrills.
The Spierigs have, for the most part, captured the era well and the production design by Matthew Putland (Mystery Road, Predestination) is striking. The set-pieces are well conceived and the atmosphere is effective, yet there will be few Australian viewers who won’t be distracted from the unmistakable outdoor Aussie landscapes. With the setting of the film being San Jose, California, I find it peculiar that these less-than-subtle details would be overlooked. And with the exterior scenes being relegated to bookends, they make for a sloppy point of reference. Casting that aside, the film predominantly takes place within the walls of the mansion, where the attention to detail is impressive. And yet, again, just when there’s something else positive to critique, the budget restraints are blatantly obvious. As referenced, the on-screen design is stunning, yet with the house boasting over 100 rooms, the entire film takes place within only a few. In fact, without any subtext, you would be mistaken for thinking they were inside a townhouse.
On a positive note, the cast is good and Mirren’s presence is most welcome. Her performance as Sarah Winchester is no stretch by any means, however the genre is certainly a refreshing change of scene for her. She embraces the nature of the movie with open arms and invests as much of her self into it as she would an Oscar-winning film. Clarke gives a well-measured performance as a mentally fractured doctor at odds with his profession, while Snook lends vulnerability to the story. They add an appealing presence and have the perfect calibre of celebrity to enhance the film’s credibility. Neither are quite A-list, yet both are fully accomplished, and their small ensemble offers a nice dynamic. Other players include the legendary Bruce Spence, Angus Sampson and Eamon Farren (fresh from his impressive role in Twin Peaks ’17).
It feels as though if you’ve seen one period-set haunted house film, you’ve seen them all. Their formula is particular, and their element of surprise is often limited. Winchester is equal fare to the comparable Crimson Peak, with a premise that is grounded in reality. Its story is built upon the same legend that inspired Stephen King to write Rose Red, and with the actual Winchester Mansion being a very real structure, open for all curious bodies to explore, this film might just have the upper hand (ever so slightly). It is perhaps a suitable scary movie for the more sensitive moviegoer; more scares for them and less for the seasoned horror buff.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10