Winchester (Movie Review)

Winchester (Movie Review)
5 10

PLOT: In 1906, widower Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), heir to the repeater rifle fortune, enlists the aid of a Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to determine whether or not she’s of sound mind when claiming her gaudy mansion to be haunted the victims of her family’s gun.

REVIEW: After spacing their two best movies out over a five year span – DAYBREAKERS and PREDESTINATION – the brothers Spierig have instead seen their last two films released over the past three months. Not to say haste makes total waste, but first came the mindlessly middling return of JIGSAW, and new to theaters today opens WINCHESTER, another adequately crafted but sadly neutered and nonthreatening PG-13 fright flick that works far better as a solemn throwback Gothic romance than as an outright haunted house jolter. Hardcore horror hearts and heads are sure to be disconsolate to what amounts to a feckless farrago of jump-frights and faux-freak-outs, even if you can appreciate how well acted, lit and designed the entire production is throughout. Best yet just might be the story here, not just one partially based on the true story of Sarah Winchester and her eminently eerie California mansion, but also the fictional one about a doped-up doctor doing his damndest to summon old inner demons to fight new outer ones. Alas, paling platitudes and a forced formula ultimately foment to render not quite a biopic, not quite a horror joint, not quite a great film, not quite a terrible one. In the end, even if it hits a target or two, WINCHESTER sort of has poor aim!

San Jose, California. 1906. Dr. Eric Price (Clarke), an unkempt hedonist dependent on booze and pipettes of low-dosage poison is called to check on the mental stability of Sarah Winchester, heir to the Repeating Arms rifle magnate. He’s told by his uppers that if he gives her a failing mental health check, her company will be sold and Price will reap a handsome payday. He arrives on the sprawling estate promptly, first greeted by Sarah’s niece Marion (Sarah Snook) and her son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). He’s given a tour and quick back-story of the still under construction mansion, which Sarah had ordered to be built after being haunted by what she claims to be the many ghosts victimized by her family’s Winchester rifle. Her intent is to continuously construct “the house that spirits built” as a means to imprison them forever in a labyrinthine asylum of sorts, which she eventually did in real life, around the clock, 24/7 for over two decades. As many of you may know, The Winchester House is still a very real place today, equipped with some 160 rooms and insane architectural layouts that include staircases to nowhere, doors to nothingness, secret passageways, ornate regalia and the rest of it. Price is properly spooked by his environs, hits the bottle, spikes a Laudnum drop and waits for dinner.

Enter Dame Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester. Her quietude speaks volumes, her presence carries weight. She greets Price not with skepticism but with design. It will turn out later that Price, having been medically declared dead in the past for a full three minutes after being shot by a Winchester, has an intrinsic connection to the house himself. He’s been summoned for this exact reason. Nothing else need be said, except that one of the strengths of the story is how torn, off-kilter and conflicted Dr. Price is at all times. He’s not only dealing with his own past demons, self-medicating as a result of unspeakable tragedy in his own life – fatal tragedy – his dopey hallucinations brought on by both drugs and withdrawal (Sarah confiscates his stash) disallow him to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not, what’s tangibly material and what’s ghastly ethereal. How can he judge Sarah’s sanity if he can’t trust his own? Add the bind put to him by Marion, who’s son is not only becoming possessed by a ghost, but implores him that the easiest way to leave is to quickly give Sarah a clean bill of health, and you can see why Price is paying quite a heavy one at every twist and turn. It’s what I liked most about this movie actually, the protagonistic quagmires Price finds himself in throughout, and how credibly played they all are by veteran Aussie actor Jason Clarke. All the actors are good here, but it’s his show!

The other thing that struck me about the film is the look, lighting, sumptuous sets and luscious color palates the Spierigs employed. After the 60s-70s style title card flashed, I instantly knew they were lovingly riffing on old Hammer/Amicus style Gothic romance movies from that era, dipping into vibrant pastels and vivid Technicolor palate-schemes. Also, the name Price must be a heartfelt homage to the great Vincent Price, even if he wasn’t a Hammer regular per se. And while I do wish more interiors were shown of the actual Winchester mansion (word is it’s reportedly so cramped to shoot in that set-replicas were built instead), much of the maddening maze-work is shot to great effect in the film. Having been to the real place, it casts a truly dizzying spell on you, and the Spierigs did a decent job of duplicating that onscreen. There wasn’t enough of it, but what they did replicate they did so accurately and requisitely creepy.

But look, if you call yourself a horror film, you damn well better be scary. Not just creepy, scary! Displeasuringly, WINCHESTER boasts very little genuine terror. Frankly, the real place is scarier. Most of the frightful attempts in the film adhere to the played out, cliché-ridden quick-jump-scare variety – ghosts and ghouls smashing into the frame in close up out of nowhere, usually along with a deafening sting – that kind of thing. At least a half dozen of these stints occur, and of those, I will say one did land with me. It had more to do with the sound and lighting than the actual image, but so be it. Partial credit earned. But again, for a horror film, it’s nowhere near enough to pass with an excelling grade. Had the Spierigs perhaps nixed the dumb jump-frights and rote horror platitudes and just told the story straight up as more of a dramatic thriller, or even a stylish biopic, it might lean heavier on the acting and inherently eerie true story and play as a better overall movie. As it is though, framed through the lens of a watered-down horror film, WINCHESTER loses it scope!

Extra Tidbit: WINCHESTER opens its doors everywhere today, February 2nd!
Source: AITH



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