By Mathew Dillon
Winchester is an Australian horror film based on one of the more famous real-world ghost stories, another entry in the long-dormant “haunted house” subgenre. Taking place in the early 20th century, the film follows Eric Prince (Jason Clarke), a therapist sent to the bizarre Winchester House to examine its owner and architect, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren).
He does so at behest of the famous Winchester Repeating Arms company, who grows concerned with the reclusive owner’s behavior. Once there, Prince is forced to confront not only the ghosts drawn there, but also his own teetering sanity.
Even if you do not buy into the supernatural elements, the real life story of Lady Winchester and her labyrinthine house is more than enough for a feature film. Unfortunately, Winchester fails to harness the source material or even distinguish itself from an overcrowded genre.
Winchester is distinctly average in almost every capacity, whether it be technical or narrative. The characters are lifeless, the lighting is strangely bright and direction is so weak even Helen Mirren fails to leave a mark.
The film mixes some quaint practical effects with some very plastic-looking animation, something that becomes especially apparent during the climax. Winchester relies almost entirely on jump scares, the most overused trick in the horror genre arsenal.
The film’s few attempts at building tension or atmosphere fall flat, mainly due to a repetitive plot. In a time when the horror genre has begun to explore old stories with new perspectives with films like It Follows, Get Out and It, a film as unimaginative as Winchester is just boring.
Despite the haunted house subgenre’s major role in establishing horror films as a cinematic fixture, there is a reason it has tapered out over the years. Modern audiences are more frightened by a relentless, unstoppable force than a static object that happens to be cursed.
Winchester seems to realize that, as it quickly abandons its greatest strength, the bizarre Winchester House itself, in favor of a half-baked revenge-from-beyond-grave plotline that has a downright cartoonish resolution. If you are going to make a haunted house film in the 21st century, the real-world Winchester House is probably your best bet.
The strange architecture, with nailed off rooms and stairways leading to nowhere, is creepy enough without adding the recently departed. However, the less-than-stellar filmmaking has made the mansion feel pedestrian and it progressively ignore more and more as the film goes on.
Winchester tries to be both a horror film and a character drama. Admittedly, the real life story could execute both pretty well. It could work as a film where the supernatural elements are left ambiguous, leaving the audience and the characters to wonder if the Winchester House really is a supernatural conduit or just the product of a grieving mind.
Alternatively, they could have done a conventional horror film, turning the house into a magnet for the tragedy and rage caused by the guns used to fund its construction. However, the film insists on doing both, which theoretically should not be impossible, but the production falls short of making that kind of hybrid work.
The real-life inspiration behind Winchester has a lot of potential, but the film just does not know how to use it. Even horror fans should pass on Winchester, as it offers nothing they have not seen before.