Thanks to its resurgence in the past few years, horror has slowly, but surely rising through the ranks as a much more respectable genre in Hollywood. More and more, we see horror films with A-list casts and popular directors behind them, bringing forth a sort of renaissance in the genre we haven’t had for as long as I’ve been alive. This doesn’t mean there still aren’t bad horror films out there, because just like any genre, there are major clunkers, but the overall quality of them have morphed into a much more consistent genre as of late. Studios are investing more in original horror, while also rebooting old franchises to see if their past failures can turn around into successes. Sequels and reboots like “Annabelle: Creation,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and “It” have really turned around missteps that previous films in its franchise made. This past fall, Lionsgate “rebooted” its “Saw” franchise with “Jigsaw,” which premiered to mixed results (though I surprisingly enjoyed it). Helmed by The Spierig Brothers, something inside me made me think that “Jigsaw” was in their contract to get Lionsgate’s distribution (through CBS Films) on their original project, “Winchester,” and with mega-actress Helen Mirren behind the title name, it’s hard to deny the intrigue a film like this holds.
Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is a psychologist living in 1906 San Francisco. He’s destructive after the suicide of his wife years earlier, engaging in opium use, hard drinking and the company of prostitutes. Price is contacted by Arthur Gates (Tyler Coppin), a representative for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, contracting Price out for a psychological evaluation of the company’s majority shareholder, widow Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). The company believes that Winchester’s sanity has gone, due to her incessant building on her San Jose mansion in order to keep the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles at bay. Price visits Winchester’s estate, intent on signing her bill of insanity, taking the company away from her, but as his time in the mansion continues, he begins to find signs of life far more malevolent than he could imagine.
Off the bat, I’ll just say it: “Winchester” made me sad. This has every element of one of those horror films that can reshape the genre in a way that brings more legitimacy to it all in a way that’s also approachable for mainstream audiences, but there’s a certain cheapness about the film in how incessantly cliché it insists its horror be within the confines of a truly fascinating story. Had the film focused more on exploring why Winchester was the way she was, why she felt she was being haunted, and truly showing what Winchester was experiencing in the house, it could’ve been a very haunting drama film with some jolts of frightening clarity. Instead, and somewhat surprisingly, we’re stuck with something riddled with every horror trope imaginable, just with a much more credible team being hurt by it this time.
Are there good things about “Winchester”? Absolutely, and her name is Helen Mirren. Mirren could act her way out of “The Room” if she truly wanted to, and no matter how silly or cliché the material she finds herself in is, she’s always by and large the best part of every film she finds herself in, “Collateral Beauty” included. Here, she’s a tormented woman, but not one of weakness, one of strength and pain, but tormented nonetheless. She brings a power to her scenes that really make me wonder why she wasn’t utilized more in the film, something I still wish could’ve happened. Clarke is also good in the film, simply because he’s a good actor, but he also plays a character so bland and uninteresting that it’s hard to pull much out of him into anything remotely compelling. Clarke does his best, but we’re simply too indifferent to care.
Independently produced, “Winchester” isn’t an assault on the senses by any means, but the film does get one thing wonderfully right: the house. While not shot in the actual Winchester Mansion in California, the production design and art direction of the film is simply stunning. When the main character of your film is a house, you better be damn sure that what you create is something to be remembered, which was actually achieved very well here. It’s beautifully constructed and incredibly fascinating to explore, proving to be an even more compelling character than Clarke’s character, and somehow even less wooden.
The major thing about “Winchester” is that unfortunately, despite all this, this isn’t a film about Winchester’s mental state and personal experiences, it’s a horror film that’s made to scare audiences. Despite this beautiful house that’s uneasily unique, there is no atmosphere in the film, something you think would exude itself naturally in its sets, but amazingly is nowhere to be found. Any sort of horror is found solely, not mostly, solely in jump scares that are as cheap as they are ineffective. Everything about the film is predictable and rote, leaving no sort of tension or suspense to keep audiences interested. Had the film not been scary out of sheer indifference in lieu of a more compelling dramatic narrative, that would’ve been fine; a haunting film is always great. Yet, “Winchester” tries to be scary, it’s made for being scary, and it isn’t…not even once.
Produced in Australia, most of the cast, aside from Mirren, is Australian, which provides for some suspect American accents at times, and none more laughably noticeable than Eamon Farren’s Ben Block, a Southern butler that might be one of the worst Southern accents I’ve ever heard in a major film. It’s drawn out so much and is so over-the-top and caricature-like that it makes any scene with him, which soon become quite a few, seriously.
I feel like I’m going to view “Winchester” in the same way I viewed “The Forest” a little over two years ago. I didn’t like “The Forest,” as I thought it was a cheap way of exploiting a truly haunting locale, but because of its great cinematography and performance from Natalie Dormer, I began to wonder if I actually did like the film after all, which I always am reminded that I do not. How “Winchester” came to be so ultimately disappointing is as much of a mystery as the design scheme of the house that inspired it. It’s messy, cheap, not scary, predictable and worst of all, it’s dull. Not only are we never truly scared, we never learn much about the history of any of the characters, let alone Winchester herself, which leads us to struggle to care about anything happening in the film. Relying solely on jump scares to get the job done, it completely drains whatever atmosphere this house might have right out of the walls and down the drain. Despite all this, with its strong production design and wonderful performance from Mirren, it’s still not enough to make “Winchester” worth it, as it soon becomes apparent that the film is a staircase to nowhere.
Directed by: The Spierig Brothers
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Angus Sampson, Bruce Spence, Eamon Farren, Laura Brent, Tyler Coppin, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey.
Runtime: 99 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements.
Also available in Dolby Cinema exclusively at AMC Concord Mills.
CBS Films presents, in association with Eclipse Pictures, a Screen Australia presentation, in association with Screen Queensland and Film Victoria, a Blacklab Entertainment production, an Imagination Design Works production, a film by The Spierig Brothers, “Winchester”