Winchester (2018)

FEBRUARY 1, 2018


When I still lived in Massachusetts, the family took a vacation to California to visit my sister, flying to Los Angeles and spending a few days there, then driving up the coast to spend a couple days in San Francisco. While planning the trip, my mom gave me and my sister a tourist guidebook and said we could each pick a place to go as long as it was more or less on the way; she picked Disneyland I think, and I picked the Winchester Mystery House. Well, we went to Disneyland, but my pick was vetoed for reasons I can no longer recall (I assume it's because unlike Disneyland, no one else wanted to go), so the only time I've ever really seen much of it is in Winchester, which is somehow the first feature film (not documentary) to explore this legendary haunted house (or at least, actually film at it, per the IMDb) despite the fact that it should have been a no-brainer. The possibilities are endless - a modern day story about paranormal investigators checking it out, perhaps in found footage style? A wholesome family buying it and discovering its secrets? Or maybe just a Session 9 kind of thing about a team of unfortunate real estate guys trying to put together a cohesive layout map of the damn place?

See, for those uninitiated, the Winchester house isn't just a mansion - it's a maze, complete with dead-end hallways that serve no purpose and doors that open into walls or, more dangerously, second story drops. The reclusive and eccentric owner, Sarah Winchester, had the place built and rebuilt over and over for nearly forty years, with construction workers and carpenters working on it day and night every single day (though her biographer says this is an exaggeration, and that she would actually allow breaks). She did this to give rooms for the ghosts of victims of the Winchester rifles, a company she inherited 51% of after her husband died, even though she detested the weapons and what they were used for. With a huge fortune (and continued income) at her disposal, she used it to make amends of sorts, and this has allowed the house to continue to thrive as a tourist attraction, as it's claimed to be haunted and even if it wasn't it's just a nutty place to see with its interior windows and slapdash design. So again, there were lots of possibilities for a film version, and the one they came up is rather simple: a doctor (played by Jason Clarke) is hired to evaluate Sarah's mental health, to see if she's fit to continue running the company. Her talk of ghosts and endless construction have got the guys who own the other half of the company rightfully worried that she'll do something nutty and jeopardize the business, so they're hoping Clarke will see it their way and officially write her off as a loon.

But Sarah is played by Helen Mirren, so we know right off the bat she's not crazy and that there really is a ghost problem there, because you don't hire Helen Mirren to play someone who will be pushed aside by a bunch of weasely men in suits. She makes this clear in her first big one on one scene with Clarke, sizing up his drinking problem within seconds and insisting that he knock it off ASAP, and when he says he will you believe him - he won't risk further wrath. Still, I liked this angle; even if the outcome was obvious - it's a big improvement on the usual sort of "skeptical expert is called to investigate if ghosts are real" plot. This allows a number of scenes with the two stars merely talking to each other, with Clarke trying to run her through basic tests and Mirren trying to get into HIS head since she's the one who requested him in the first place as (minor spoiler, we learn it like 30 minutes in though) he had "died" in the past for three minutes and thus might have a particular knack for dealing with spirits and the afterlife. Had he been there specifically to deal with ghosts or lack thereof, like Rebecca Hall's character in The Awakening, we'd just have to watch a bunch of scenes of him fiddling with equipment and denying what he saw with his own eyes for half the movie. Instead, Clarke is on board with the fact that the place is haunted pretty early, which is a nice change of pace.

Unfortunately, the script didn't think of much else to do to give the movie some oomph, so after a promising first act it devolves into a standard Insidious/Woman in Black-y kind of deal with vengeful ghosts being dealt with so they can be at rest and blah blah blah. It hits all the buttons one might expect from this kind of thing - there's a bunch of jump-scares (including a pretty great one involving Mirren and her nephew), objects floating around, loud noises... you know the drill. But why introduce this legendary backdrop and not use it for anything of note? Besides implementing the San Francisco earthquake around the end of the second act (which in real life resulted in the house reducing its number of stories from seven to four), after a while there's no difference between this and any other horror movie house, despite the Spierig Brothers' constant attempts to remind us of how huge the place is by cutting to swooping aerial shots of it every five minutes. We're told that it's easy to get lost, but no one ever really does, and the go-nowhere doors and the like are rarely used either. Plus, despite its size, it feels like 90% of the interior scenes take place in one of four areas: Sarah's office, Clarke's quarters, the room the nephew shares with his mother, and a staircase that is sectioned into four paths, making it look like an amusement park queue line. Clarke bumps his head once or twice, and that's about the extent of him being able to work/spring into action within this supposed labyrinth - it feels like a giant missed opportunity to put a stranger in there and never once have it be much of an issue.

Plus it just feels like an Insidious movie half the time, exacerbated by the fact that Angus "Tucker" Sampson has a supporting role as one of the construction guys. You got the kickass senior citizen telling ghosts off, the kid in jeopardy, and, like the first Insidious, a whole bunch of anonymous spirits with just enough detail to make you think "Huh, wonder what their story is." Yet they focus mainly on one, a guy who shot up a place while wearing a bag over his head. His introduction to the story is quite well done (part of that aforementioned first act that had me thinking this would be a winner), but he poses no real menace to our protagonists, even Clarke, whose character, unlike the others is a fictional person and even primed for being offed on account of his backstory. You don't need a body count for a successful haunted house/ghost movie (see: Poltergeist. Do not see: Poltergeist III, the only one in the series where someone is killed because of the ghost-y stuff), but it helps to at least feel like there's a true danger to the predicament. The earthquake does more of that heavy lifting than the ghosts ever do, which adds to the film's ho-hum final act. Like the Spierig's previous film, Jigsaw, it's one of those movies where I kept hoping that the generic proceedings was misdirection for something grander to come, only for it to end with no such upswing.

Alas, it's at its best when it's simply Mirren and Clarke talking, which probably isn't going to help sell tickets. Mirren is of course one of the best of all time and it's wonderful to have her in a "HMAD" kind of movie, even if it's beneath her talents. She commands the screen like few others and seems to be enjoying going a bit out of her element (this is, I think, her first legit horror movie, though she's been in a few thrillers and sci-fi films), though I hope her top billing doesn't mislead you about her screentime, as she isn't in it nearly as much as Clarke, who we're with for nearly every scene. Luckily for me, I quite like the actor - he's handsome but not in a traditional marquee movie star kind of way, and he's got that Terry O'Quinn/John Vernon kinda vibe to him that will ensure if this kind of more heroic role doesn't suit him he can be a great in-demand villain for the rest of his life if he wants. There's a great bit where he tries to fool Mirren with a magic trick that she susses out instantly (probably even before he finishes the maneuver), and the look on his face is priceless - he knows he cannot pull a fast one on this woman, and I started wishing the movie could just do away with the other characters and let this be some sort of off-kilter "romance" between the two of them as they battle ghosts, instead of stooping to haunted kids making scary sounds.

Basically, it's a January horror movie through and through, but since it's coming out in February I guess I expected a little more out of it. The Spierigs have proven that they are capable (Daybreakers) but fail to give this any real life (the score by one of the brothers is quite nice at times though), and there's only so much Mirren and Clarke can do to keep it interesting. Add in some confusing messaging about guns (it would seem like a shoe-in for an anti-gun approach, but then the bad ghost is defeated by... shooting it) and the fact that we just went through this kind of thing with Insidious 4 and you're left with not a whole lot to recommend a big-screen excursion, even as Super Bowl counter-programming. Save your money to visit the real house or contribute to some kind of gun control charity, because those will have a lasting impact - the movie is already escaping my memory less than 24 hours after seeing it, which is never a good thing. As I've said before, I'd rather see something shockingly bad than aggressively forgettable, but it's much worse when it had all the ingredients for something truly interesting.

What say you?


  1. I just had a hard time believing the house is haunted. If I was a ghost, I'd go after the person who killed me, not the weapons manufacturer.

  2. I agree this had potential but it just becomes another run of the mill haunted house film. What's happening to the Spierig Brothers first Jigsaw now this. It's not bad but it's not great either probably in 20 years it will be a classic.


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