It’s a shame that these days, one almost inevitably has to attend film festivals in order to see the best horror movies, with very few exceptions. WINCHESTER is advertised as being inspired by a true story, and there is indeed a Winchester House in San Jose, California, of all places. It isn’t hard to find plenty of eerie stories about the goings on in the house, and Winchester expands on these ghost stories in an attempt to create something unique and original, even if it does ultimately fall back on tired old clichés.
Set in 1906, Winchester follows Jason Clarke’s Dr. Eric Price, a damaged therapist trying to recover from the death of his wife, as he’s hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. to go down to the Winchester House to analyze its owner, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Her shareholders and partners are getting worried about the widow’s sanity after she starts expanding and building upon the Winchester House day and night, creating hundreds of rooms within a maze-like network of hallways.
Price arrives at the home, meets Winchester’s niece (Sarah Snook) and her young son, and the weird occurrences begin, as he begins a series of sessions with the widow Winchester. There’s little question that there’s something wrong with this elderly woman who walks around the house at night shrouded in black. We’ll learn through their discussions that there’s a method to her madness, which I won’t reveal since it would spoil one of the movie’s more interesting angles.
Winchester is the latest from Australia’s Spierig Brothers, who recently tried to reboot Jigsaw, but will probably be remembered more for their action film Daybreakers, which put a smarter twist on typical vampire movies. They obviously have enough experience as filmmakers to venture into new territory with the tired haunted house movie, but it’s hard to ignore fact that almost everything that can be done has been done.
The Spierigs benefit greatly from the exquisitely unique location and how it’s used in the story. Having actors the caliber of Mirren, Clarke and Snook (appearing in her second Spierig production) also doesn’t hurt, mostly so much of the film involves slower dialogue-heavy moments.
The problem is that those who generally go to horror movies for wild non-stop scares will likely get bored by the film’s generally slower pace which involves a lot of exposition, mostly about what is happening within the house.
What sets Winchester apart is that it’s essentially dealing with the ghosts of those who have been killed at the hands of gun violence, specifically Winchester’s rifles, and they’re coming back to haunt the last living Winchesters. Price actually has a connection to this central premise, which I also won’t reveal.
The thought of an actor on the level of Helen Mirren doing a movie like this does attest to the quality of the writing, for the most part, but most of the time, this is a horror movie where the characters on screen are always more scared than the viewer. Thankfully, there aren’t nearly as many of the cheap scares we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies, but they’re still there, as is the de rigueur creepy possessed kid. These tend to feel out of place with the more sophisticated and thought-provoking thriller the Spierigs were trying to make.
As much as I wanted to like Winchester for its intriguing premise and mostly solid cast, it drags on for too long. By the time things do start picking up, the climax ends up being too confusing to follow.
There’s certainly good to be found in the story Winchester is trying to tell, but it’s hard to believe it can possibly satisfy both the casual horror buff and the more diehard supernatural purist.
Running time: 99 minutes
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor