Ensconced in her sprawling California mansion, eccentric firearm heiress Sarah Winchester believes she is haunted by the souls of people killed by the Winchester repeating rifle.
In filmmaking, there are no guarantees.
There are no fail-safe formulas which can be followed.
But when you have at your disposal, an Oscar-, Tony-, Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning actress – one of the most highly regarded female thespians of our time – paired with an absolutely juicy and oozing-with-potential story (based on a real-life person, themselves loaded with idiosyncrasies — and a haunted house to match) – and still can’t make a good film using these coveted puzzle pieces…
Well, then that earlier statement of “no guarantees” certainly holds water. But it brings up the query, “how could this not work?”
Winchester is a new film from Lionsgate and The Spierig Brothers (Predestination, Undead), which follows a young, grieving physician named Dr. Eric Price (Mudbound’s Jason Clarke) as he pulls himself up out of his post-loss debauchery and takes a paid gig to assess the mental fitness of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) as she continues to own and operate the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Her belief is that because of the countless deaths caused by her family’s weapons of war – that the ghosts of these victims have come to seek revenge. And by never ceasing construction on her massive mansion – she will contain the spectres and somehow appease them. Living in the massive home with Winchester is her niece Marion (Sarah Snook) and Marion’s young son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O-Prey). When Price arrives at the home to examine Sarah, he finds that her “delusions” may not be so easily explained away.
There are so many horror film/ghost story cliches throughout Winchester, that you’ll quickly lose count. One which sticks with me – the creepily rocking chair with no one in it. The main character slowly moves forward, finally reaching out to touch it, only for the chair’s rocking to abruptly cease at his touch. C’mon. And there’s plenty more where that came from.
While there are some decent “boo” moments, it never feels like the filmmakers really earn them. They’re not particularly original, and there was no build of suspense anywhere to be found, and so while the jumps may have gotten me (GOTCHA!), they’re nothing more than empty calories.
The production design is exquisite. No detail was left to chance and major props must be given to the set decorators and costumers. All of this was stunning.
I was quite smitten with Sarah Snook when I first discovered her in the Blumhouse film Jessabelle (2014). You can read my full review of that film here. And frankly, even with a powerhouse like Mirren at the film’s center, Snook stole the show. It’s fantastic how suited Snook is to the film’s period. Her facial structure and overall look (of a young Frances Fisher) seem tailor-made for 1906 hairstyles and clothing. And although the script gives her very little to do, she makes the most of it and becomes the only truly engaging character.
Mirren felt wasted. Other than a wonderfully coy look at Price when the characters first meet, there’s nothing subtle about her performance. There’s no depth. Certainly, Winchester is a supporting role in the film, with Price being our avenue into the story – but that feels like a misstep. The focus could have (and should have) been on Sarah Winchester.
When you have the talents of Mirren at your disposal, then make better use of her. And I’ll say it again. With Dame Helen Mirren in your film, how can you go wrong? It just doesn’t make any sense. But the bottom line – this is not a good performance from Mirren. And as I’ve said countless times before in similar scenarios: we know that Mirren is a gifted and strong performer – so the blame can not be laid at her feet in Winchester.
On a fun note, Bruce Spence (The Road Warrior’s “Gyro Captain”) appears in a brief role as one of the Winchester house’s many servants!
And then there are the constant sweeping exterior shots of the house. We want to see the vastness of the property and the many nooks and crannies of the place. And we want to be constantly reminded of the continuous construction on the home, but these establishing shots became repetitive very quickly – including what sounded like the exact same “hammer pounding” sound effect used over and over again. We get it.
There are some odd continuity problems. As seen in the trailer, an aging and arthritic Sarah Winchester is tossed about – landing into some glass cabinets. And there are other scenes where she is pummeled with the butt of one of her family’s namesake rifles. And yet – minutes later in the film’s denouement, she’s upright, spry and seemingly unaffected by these earlier (read: a few hours ago) injuries.
My avid readers of (what are we up to now, 3?) know how much little details like this cannot go unnoticed by me. And again I’ll say, the devil is in the details.
Polar opposite from the glory that is the film’s production design, is the dreadfully flimsy and painfully slow-moving story. We’ve seen all of this before as the film borrows from such superior haunted house films as The Others and Robert Wise’s The Haunting – minus any of those films’ spine-tingling horrors. The story here feels convoluted, and the rules of the ghosts and how they can or can’t be there or how they can affect the living world – never feel properly spelled out. And why would certain ghosts be released when “the main ghost” is on a rampage? The sheer spectacle of a ghost free-for-all is fun, but didn’t make much sense.
But the cardinal sin in Winchester, is that the film is quite boring. There’s no real drive toward anything, and the many reveals of “the main ghost” are lackluster.
What pains me most is that this quirky story of Sarah Winchester probably won’t be touched again by filmmakers for 50 years. The oddities of her beliefs and actions deserved a richer and more original tale when being brought to the big screen. But with what is a less-than-enthusiastic response to the film, we can assume that this subject matter will be christened as “box office poison” and be haphazardly stacked away in a dusty corner of the “never again” pile.
But now because of this barely mediocre telling, we’ll probably never get a truly great and inspired interpretation of what went on inside that house. And that, my friends is a missed opportunity.
Sarah Winchester existed. She had this house built. She believed these things. That’s some prime real estate (pun intended) for a great story, and it feels to me that Winchester simply squandered that obvious potential.
Again, how could this film have misfired so spectacularly?
Winchester is now playing at theatres everywhere. But if you like the idea of the story, wait for the next adaptation/attempt to bring it to life – if this film hasn’t ruined that potential opportunity.