San Jose’s Winchester mansion is considered one of the most haunted, puzzling architectural achievements in American history. As the name suggests, this labyrinth-crafted structural oddity drew funding from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company – widow Sarah Winchester began construction after her husband and baby passed away and only stopped because of her own death. Legend tells that Sarah continuously remodeled the ever-shifting maze of corridors to help subdue a family curse, as a means of appeasing those souls who’d been gunned down by Winchester weaponry. Sounds like primo haunted house fodder, right? The Spierig Brothers (Peter/Michael) thought so, and thus Winchester was produced.
In their film, Helen Mirren stars as troubled Sarah Winchester – but she’s hardly the focal character. That’d be Eric Price (Jason Clarke), the physician hired by Winchester’s board to evaluate her mental well being. If declared not sound of mind, she’d have to relinquish control of her company – which seems fitting at first. Sarah immediately begins telling stories of ghosts who roam the corridors and how she helps them find peace. Each added room invites a new soul into our world, except some don’t pursue forgiveness. The worst of the worst must be locked away behind 13 nails until they’re ready to let go, but unfortunately for Price, one particularly vengeful spirit threatens his business visit.
At first, initial housebound inspections offer Gothic intrigue. Once we push past the stand-outish CGI exterior shots of Winchester manor in full-view, Eric’s blueprint tour exemplifies the nonsense of doors that open into second story drop-offs and windows between adjoining rooms. Sarah is seen shuffling about under her black webbed veil as if always mourning, while her beloved Marion (Sarah Snook) lays down strict ground rules (Price’s Laudanum dependency a no-no). Aesthetically, there’s so much to marvel at as a construction crew (run by Angus Sampson’s foreman) works 24/7 to build and demolish rooms at an old woman’s whim. The Spierigs were right to tell such a baffling story based on true events.
Yet with the above admission, one also has to question why Eric Price is the film’s prized pig. Jason Clarke plays a white male savior who’s drunkenly stumbling his way through parlor tricks and whorish delights, all the while doing his best Robert Englund impression. He’s called in by Winchester to do a job (hand-picked by Sarah herself), but is revealed as this all-important key to saving those inhabitants of Winchester (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey plays Henry, Marion’s son). This is a story about the Winchester “Mystery” House, patchworked through Sarah Winchester’s warnings, about a no-relation doctor who’s battling his own “deceased wife” demons. The latter aspect, unfortunately, benefits Winchester the least.
As days turn to nights, we derive – through generic exposition and scares – that one of Sarah’s visitors seeks revenge because his brothers died in battle thanks to Winchester manufacturing (he himself slaughtered Winchester workers then accepted fate). This means he starts possessing the Chucky-haired Henry every night, clouding his eyes a milky shade of dead. Footless roller skates zoom at random, a child shoots real bullets, [redacted] ghost tries to kill poor Henry while inside him – but, again, Sarah remains as reclusive as her reputation. She’s relegated to unspooling yarns of ludicrous-sounding plot tangles – scribbling new chamber designs while connected to undead spirits and spying on Price – in predictable fashion. Almost as predictable as Price’s arc.
It’s a shame, really. Helen Mirren does what Helen Mirren does best – posture a proper dame of regality who equals, nay, bests any and all who interact. Sarah Winchester carries such a cloaked depth of fascination that’s never tapped given Price’s outsider stance. It makes for a dull haunted mansion ride only worsened by the house’s framing (despite peppered factoids about ballrooms built with no nails and what have you). Rooms are barely explored, jagged and useless designs unquestioned, ghost variety minimal despite Sarah’s confessions – frankly, this could have been *any* Victorian monstrosity with a wonky contractor’s eye. A Winchester film that might as well have been dubbed Price.
Scares are – as reported by a genre addict – jumpy at best. The big ones have been spoiled if you’ve replayed any trailer or *were forced to watch* this behind the scenes post-trailers/pre-movie in-theater teaser (why?!), so there’s not much else besides a few ghost tosses and one nifty levitation trick. Otherwise you’re in for a railcar lurcher that scores one or two unexpected camera lunges and one Earthquake death rattle, but you can only get so far with facial pan-in screen fillers. After a while, “surprises” become as clockwork as Sarah’s midnight bell-ringing (meant to signify when ghosts reach peak strength).
Winchester should be a historical slice of “Great American” horror pie, but instead we’re left hungry. Craving something more flavorful from Sarah Winchester and her spiritual millionaire abattoir. You’ve seen all the tropes – little kid jolted awake by noise while mom sleeps soundly, peeping character gets scared, emotional weight becomes savior’s tool – and they’ve been equally executed. I do think less involved horror audiences may appreciate this terrifying trip to California considerably more, yet for 100-horror-flick-a-year psychos like myself, predictability is an ugly finish on these walls. Madame Mirren and all.
Winchester is a familiar haunted house shuffle about an infinitely more interesting topic, but you must play with the hand you're dealt - win, lose or draw.