Peter and Michael Spierig, best known as the Spierig brothers, are talented filmmakers, just a couple years removed from their excellent, twisty sci-fi feature Predestination. Helen Mirren, of course, has established herself a cinematic legend after decades of work. And Jason Clarke has been considered a solid go-to-guy in Hollywood since his breakout in Zero Dark Thirty. Given the talents of all these people, you’d think that their first collaboration together, the new horror movie Winchester, would have a lot of potential, but unfortunately you would be very wrong. Instead, they have produced a work that is utterly toothless and boring, full of nothing but cheap jump scares timed out around a trope-filled plot that audiences have seen hundreds of times in bad modern genre films.
Based on a script by the Spierig brothers and Tom Vaughan, Winchester transports audiences back to the year 1906, and is amazingly the first film to explore the story of the famed Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. When controlled by Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the widow of gun manufacturer William Winchester, the estate was constantly undergoing remodeling, with Sarah claiming to be haunted by the spirits of thousands of victims killed by her company’s products. A seemingly endless series of rooms continued to be added with no real logic, leaving the place a labyrinth of odd hallways with doors and stairways going absolutely nowhere.
The story begins with Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a grieving, whoring, laudanum-addicted psychiatrist living in San Francisco, being called on by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company for a special evaluation — brought in to assess Sarah Winchester’s mental competency. Board members are concerned that the widow has completely lost it and is not fit to run the company; while she counters that everything she claims is real, and that she is horrifically cursed by the weapons from which she has profited. A man of science who is constantly repeating his philosophy of mind-over-body, Price is a total skeptic who doesn’t believe any of it, but starts to have his mind changed by visions of the dead while staying at the house with Sarah’s niece (Sarah Snook) and her young son (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey).
With some filming actually done at the real Winchester Mystery House, you’d think that the real star of Winchester would be its immensely creepy, unique setting — potentially densely explored in Kubrickian fashion — but the fact that it’s not is just the first of many, many things wrong with the movie. In the entire 98-minute runtime, there is not a single sequence where a character gets lost in the maze-like structure, the narrative instead settling for poor exposition about locked rooms full of both peaceful and vengeful spirts, and scenes simply set in weird-looking portions of the building. Ultimately it’s a textbook case of telling instead of showing, with far more time devoted to characters talking about the weirdness of the construction than any actual exploration of the property (scary or otherwise).
The movie’s inability to take advantage of the most interesting aspects of the true subject matter is immensely frustrating, but what makes things worse and turns Winchester into an all-out exhausting experience are the endless jump scares. Any attempt at being “creepy” totally falls on its face (up to and including a dead-eyed redheaded child slowly singing “Beautiful Dreamer”), so the film entirely depends on flash appearances of creepy faces and sharp crescendos in the score for any energy whatsoever. They give you a jolt the first couple of times, but they eventually get so remarkably rote that you can actually count down the seconds before a painted face appears in a door way or over a character’s shoulder. If the music weren’t so loud at particular moments it could easily put you to sleep — which is really something that is extra horrible in a horror feature.
You’d like to think that the clout of Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke would be enough to elevate them above the material, but rather than thinking, “These are some good performances in a bad movie,” this is more of a “Why the hell did they sign on for this project?” situation. While Dr. Eric Price is certainly a character with plenty of defects and has an established backstory involving a wife who killed herself, he has no real personality, and gives Clarke nothing to work with that doesn’t feel tired and overdone. Mirren, meanwhile, never actually gets to do anything interesting as Sarah Winchester, as any mystery surrounding the character’s strange beliefs are totally killed by the fact that the movie makes no mystery of them at all (rather than ever appearing unsettling or weird, she is simply just correct — which isn’t doesn’t exactly inspire any spine tingles). It fully comes across as a paycheck move, as it’s hard to see what it could be that the performers found inspirational in the story being told.
The horror genre in Hollywood has been on a wonderful hot streak in the last couple years, but Winchester is the kind of movie that reminds you how easy it is to swing and miss with a scary flick. You expect a lot more from the players involved, and definitely hope that they will do better the next time out, but that also doesn’t do much to lessen the disappointment.