Sarah Winchester is the widow and majority shareholder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. However, as she profits from the killing of the innocent and not so innocent, she feels an incredible amount of guilt, and as such she is compelled to constantly construct a labyrinthine mansion to appease the spirits of the deceased. The rest of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company feel that these are the actions of a crazy person and send a therapist to assess whether their assumption is correct, but of course, they aren’t.
The Winchester House, an actual tourist attraction you can visit in San Jose California is a unique element of American Gothic folklore. The story of Sarah Winchester building a mansion of 200 rooms, 2,000 doors and 10,000 windows is most certainly true, whether she built rooms to appease or confuse the spirits to prevent them taking their revenge is another matter. If you are a fan of the strange and the spooky then the tale of the Winchester Mansion should be one to pique your interest.
However, despite the virtual playground of architectural possibilities the mansion has to offer and the unique premise of a woman in the throws of supernatural paranoia, Winchester the film squanders all of it to deliver stock jump scares and bland ghouls that you have seen in tons of other horror films. It is so cliched and unoriginal that most of the film you are waiting for the jump scare of something being revealed in a mirror, a figure walking in front of a camera in the very near foreground, a creepy child, sped up footage of a human figure flailing around and fake-outs. All these are accompanied by the same loud sound effects that they always have, so that they startle more than they scare.
The plot is as lacklustre as the 2003 Haunted Mansion, with plot twists and reveals being pulled out of nowhere. The most egregious of which relate to our analyst and his seemingly out of nowhere relationship to the house. This plot point is so poorly placed in the story that you would be forgiven if you thought that it was from a different movie. The same applies to the main supernatural antagonist and the magical deus ex machina the film uses to get rid of them. I do not know why the creators leaned so heavily on the supernatural elements of this story as there are some great elements of psychological thrillers; they could have built up suspense through implication and seemingly suitable scientific explanations for the supernatural goings-on before the reveal of sinister spirits, like Sixth Sense. Instead, the ghosts are revealed straight away and we play a waiting game for our bland hero to finally believe what he is seeing. This leaves Winchester as an incredibly unsatisfying mess. It is clear that the filmmakers were intrigued by the actual mansion but couldn’t think of anything interesting to do after that.
This is emphasised by the characters or lack thereof. We have a set of stock characters: the already mentioned creepy child being one of them, we also have his concerned mother and Sarah Winchester’s niece who both serve no real purpose in the story other than innocent victims; we have a bland drug-addled hero, Eric Price, dealing with the death of his wife and struggling with the existence of ghosts played like a cardboard silhouette by Jason Clarke; finally, Helen Mirren is in the film as Sarah Winchester, who perhaps suffers the most from a lack of decent material to work with. She is a big disappointment because you can see the film Winchester could have been in her, a gripping analysis of a woman with a deep sense of paranoia rather than a cooky, spooky lady.
While the film tries to bank on the pulling power of its female lead, Helen Mirren, do not be fooled: Winchester lacks any quality that Miriam’s name suggests, avoid this bland overproduced advertisement for a haunted house ride. The actors are am-dram, the cobwebs are made of string and you can see the stagehands moving the cupboard doors: a waste of money, time and opportunity to tell a compelling and interesting tale about an aspect of American history.
You can watch Winchester in cinemas now