I shrugged my shoulders while walking out of Winchester, the latest horror movie from Michael and Peter, the Spierig brothers. They last directed Jigsaw, but prior to that were on a bit of a roll with productions like Daybreakers and Predestination. Now they’ve directed Helen Mirren in a (possibly) haunted house movie. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes. There are also many better ways.
The lead of Winchester is actually a therapist, Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke). He’s on a “sabbatical” at the start of the movie but soon gets hired to assess the mental well-being of Sarah Winchester (Mirren), who owns 51% of her late husband’s gun company and is making decisions with which the Board of Directors disagrees. She’s also spending plenty of her own money continually upgrading her mansion, which at this point is has hundreds of rooms and at its highest reaches seven stories tall. This is all “inspired by” true events, by the way, that took place in the early 1900s. Sarah Winchester was a real person and she did spend a considerable amount of her fortune on the constant construction of her mansion.
The movie makes us wonder if spirits are behind it all—the construction, weird visions, strange occurrences, etc. Price doesn’t believe in them, being a Man of Science, and even after he sees some of them, he still doesn’t believe in them due to his reliance on laudanum, which caused hallucinations before he ever reaches the Winchester mansion.
What Winchester tries to do is balance its characters and their grief with its scares, and it’s moderately successful at doing so. Sarah lost her husband and child some years earlier, and there’s the suspicion that her grief is manifesting itself as these spirits. Meanwhile, Dr. Price lost his wife and he, himself, died for three minutes before being resuscitated. It probably would have been more interesting if the movie delved deeper into the psychological impact of these events, and probably would have been scarier, too. But this is a jump startle horror movie, and we don’t have time for that. We need someone to yell “boo!” at the camera.
Winchester isn’t particularly good, but it is pretty much watchable, which sets it ahead of the bottom tier of horror movies, if nothing else.
To its credit, a couple of the jump startles are effective at making us jump. Most are too obvious to have much effect, but I’ll admit that an early one got me. And while there isn’t a ton to the characters, the attempt to marry the grief and the spirits is an admirable one, even if it doesn’t really work. You can see what the filmmakers were going for here, and while the balance ultimately fell far too much on the sides of “let there be ghosts,” than “let me deal with my grief,” I’ll applaud the effort. That’s more than many horror movies can say.
Unfortunately, that means that Winchester ultimately feels like it’s trying to be the best of both worlds, but not satisfying either. It’ll wind up being too dull and talk-y for those looking for non-stop scares, and it’s not smart or deep enough for those hoping for a psychological horror movie about the impact grief can have on one’s life. As such, it’s going to displease a lot of people—because it had a bit more ambition than was required. That’s an odd place to be, but it’s where Winchester finds itself.
It does have good performances from Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke, who are on the screen for the majority of the film and are always watchable here. The supporting cast is fine but doesn’t get a lot to do. It’s not really an actors’ movie anyway but you get Mirren’s best effort every time you hire her. Clarke is actually the bigger surprise, giving his character a little more depth and detail than one might expect.
Winchester isn’t particularly good, but it is pretty much watchable, which sets it ahead of the bottom tier of horror movies, if nothing else. It does feel like a disappointment, though; you can sense a better movie is buried in its premise, waiting to come out but bound down by the a jump startle quota. The result is a movie that’s not scary enough for the non-stop scares crowd and not smart enough for the psychological horror scene. It’s not awful, but it’s not going to please too many people, either.
Conclusion: Winchester is a tolerable movie but ultimately winds up being a disappointment.
Recommendation: It’s not likely to be worth your time to watch Winchester.