At a time when the horror genre is saturated with jump scares and bland story lines, Winchester had a chance to be something different. Co-directors Michael and Peter Spierig set out to tell the tale of the real-life Winchester mansion, but somehow got lost along the way. The Spierig brothers prioritize cheap thrills and loud noises over exploration of the haunted manor. Winchester does boast some solid acting, but the real star of the film should have been the mansion itself: It’s a spectacular labyrinth of rooms that seem to have no direction, filled with mystery and wonder. It is unfortunate that the movie chooses to ignore that mystery, resulting in an unmemorable experience.
“Based on a true story,” Winchester begins when troubled psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke), is tasked with evaluating the mental state of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Mrs. Winchester is the widow of William Winchester, and the majority stakeholder in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company; she also lost her infant daughter, and is convinced that her family is cursed. In what is perceived as an act of grief, Mrs. Winchester has a mansion built in San Jose, CA. Even once the house is completed, the construction continues. More and more rooms are added every year, some of which make no sense relative to the layout of the house. The result is a maze of hallways, staircases, and rooms, with no rhyme or reason to the overall structure.
As soon as Dr. Price arrives at the mansion, he is greeted by Marion (Sarah Snook), Mrs. Winchester’s niece. Marion moved into the mansion with her son, Henry, shortly after her husband died, and is cold and protective of her aunt—especially since she knows that Dr. Price was sent to the mansion to deem Sarah Winchester “mentally unstable” to hold the majority share of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Throughout his interviews with Mrs. Winchester, Dr. Price slowly uncovers her reasons for building this structure. Her hatred of firearms and guilt over anyone who died at the hands of a Winchester fuel Sarah’s motivation for the ever-growing mansion, which she believes serves as a sanctuary for the spirits that have met their end by the barrel of a Winchester rifle.
Although the story falters, the acting provides some of the few bright spots in the film. Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke produce some genuinely captivating scenes together, but these moments are short-lived and rushed along in favor of the next forgettable scare. The backdrop of the movie is also a success, as the few rooms of the mansion that we see have a creepy and authentic feel to them. On top of that, the costume and wardrobe department did a spectacular job capturing the essence of the early 1900s, while staying true to an ominous setting.
Winchester could have been a terrifying film, had the Spierig brothers chosen to paint the right picture. The eerie setting is filled with intriguing bits of American history and folklore, although they are eventually ignored. It feels like the directors were trying to comment on the issue of gun violence in America today, but their message gets lost in all of the clutter. Winchester ends up being nothing more than a mediocre horror experience begging to be something larger. Sure, the audience may get a few cheap thrills out of the film, but even those feelings will fade as quickly as they arrived.