Winchester review

Helen Mirren headlines Winchester, a horror movie that soon loses its way...

Not to be confused with Supernatural brothers Sam and Dean, Winchester is the new film from Michael and Peter Spierig, the duo behind Daybreakers and Predestination, but also last year’s Jigsaw. It’s a Hammer-style haunted house ghost story that finds Helen Mirren on unusual, scenery chewing form as Sarah Winchester, the widowed heiress to an empire of violence.

Subtitled as The House That Ghosts Built in some territories, this Australian-American co-production finds a very Hammer-esque character, doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke), visiting Sarah’s enormous mansion in San Jose, California. He’s there to evaluate her mental health on behalf of her board of directors at the Winchester Repeating Arms company, after she has thrown herself and a lot of her money continuing construction on the mansion’s eccentric architecture in order to stave off vengeful spirits. Dr. Price, a former soldier, is sceptical of her story at first, but soon, he too has some close encounters with the victims of “the gun that won the West”.

It’s a promising idea, and given that it’s rooted in “Actual Events” and the house’s enduring notoriety as the Winchester Mystery House, it’s surprising that it hasn’t had the horror movie treatment before. In its first act, Winchester gives us a recipe for intrigue, with a labyrinthine locale, its devoted architect, an interesting set of rules, and an outsider whose senses cannot be fully trusted due to his self-medicating tendencies.

Sadly, much of that is squandered over the rest of the film. Mirren has been adamant in interviews that this is a ghost story, rather than a horror movie, but that doesn’t stop the film keeping all of the pre-loaded tricks in the multiplex horror handbook. The spells of ‘quiet quiet’ may last a little longer as the film rakes through its mythology with less enthusiasm than it warrants, but the ‘BANG’ bit is no less obvious.

Ad – content continues below

That lack of oomph is fatal and rather than keeping you on edge like most of these films manage, watching it becomes a real battle to stay awake. There are some pleasures in watching Mirren ham it up, but it’s not enough. Clarke is alright as the frazzled doctor, leading a supporting cast of Aussies that also includes Sarah Snook as Helen’s niece and secretary and Bruce Spence as a creepy butler, but the film lets all of them down.

It’s annoying, because there’s a very good movie buried somewhere in here. The Spierigs certainly start out being more interested in the characters than the mythology, and the dramatic elements seem to differentiate the film from every other parade of spooky spectres, appearing suddenly to get a rise out of audiences. Moreover, it spends due time interrogating the consequences of the Winchester company’s actions, with an antagonist who lived and died by their product and thereafter became determined to visit a curse upon the titular family, getting to both Sarah and her younger relatives.

But once stuff starts getting really spooky, it wraps this up by echoing a certain idiotic maxim about guns from more modern times (the one about good guys and bad guys) with a clanging symbolic twist, all delivered with brainless sincerity. It’s the point at which the film goes from being flawed to downright exasperating. You really do feel you might have been better off going for a nice cold pint and waiting for all this to blow over.

Winchester is a low-energy chiller that clearly has the makings of a prestige genre picture, but merely tries to repackage all of the usual tropes for an unfamiliar audience. The presence of a mutton-chopped Angus Sampson in a supporting role makes it worth mentioning that the still-playing Insidious: The Last Key is worth a look instead. It’s gratifying to see that we have two major horror movies where the protagonists are 70-something women, playing in cinemas at the same time, but one of these things is not like the other.

Winchester is in UK cinemas now.


2 out of 5