In theory the idea of basing a horror movie around San Jose, California’s Winchester House is a neat idea: the place is already a real-life oddity, a vast labyrinth constructed over decades by the heir to the Winchester rifle company, who according to legend kept adding to the house in order to keep the spirits of those killed by her company’s products at bay. The concept of an ever-expanding and possibly sentient house is a staple of horror fiction (and, to a lesser degree, cinema) but having one around as an actual tourist attraction on the West Coast would make for even easier-to-brand escapist fodder.
It’s too bad then that Winchester is such a misfire, pardon the pun. The film was not screened for critics before release and it’s clear to see why: it’s a turgid, lifeless bore, its first two acts filled with loads of exposition and punctuated by the occasional cheap jump scare, while its final third is an onslaught of visual effects that renders an already pointless story mostly incoherent. With so many interesting horror movies coming out over the past couple of years, from both the mainstream Hollywood studios and the independent system, it’s almost surprising to see something so resolutely mediocre still get released.
Helen Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester, the widow of repeating arms manufacturer William Winchester, whose loss of both her husband and small daughter seems to have pushed her into madness. The company’s board of directors hires a therapist named Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who’s immersed himself in drug use following his own personal tragedy, to ascertain Mrs. Winchester’s mental state and whether she is still fit to run the company she owns 51% of.
Price travels to the Winchester House, which is under construction 24/7, where he meets with both Mrs. Manchester and her niece (Sarah Snook), also a recent widow who is staying there with her son. Mrs. Winchester is convinced that the souls of those who met their deaths at the business end of a Winchester are pushing her to build the house and recreate the rooms in which they died, so they can somehow return to the world of the living; Price, understandably, doesn’t believe any of this, although events begin to transpire that slowly change his view.
And we mean slowly: a turtle trundling its way down one of the Winchester House’s many zigzagging corridors might make more headway. There is almost no suspense generated throughout the film’s 95-minute running time, and all the jump scares are telegraphed well in advance. Mirren and Clarke both seem bored; the usually sharp-edged Mirren seems unsure how to play Sarah. Full-on camp might have worked, but she settles for a dull restraint instead. Clarke just scrunches his face up and gets the lines out as quickly as he can, as if he’s afraid he’ll fall asleep before he finishes.
Winchester was directed (and co-written) by Australian filmmakers Peter and Michel Spierig, who showed a flair for world-building with their 2009 breakout, Daybreakers, and exhibited a strong sense of narrative tension and intelligent conceptualization with their little-seen and very underrated 2014 sci-fi indie Predestination. But creating effective horror seems to fall outside their skill set: last year’s attempt to reboot the moribund Saw franchise with Jigsaw fell flat, while going in the opposite direction and trying their hands at an old-fashioned period ghost story with Winchester has not done them any favors either. What flair is exhibited in the interior design of the house never really sinks in either, as we spend most of our time in the same three rooms and see little of the other 100 or so.
Bizarrely, Winchester’s heavy-handed speechifying about all the people whose lives were extinguished by the weapons that paid for the Winchester House may make it the first anti-gun horror movie in history. But social commentary is the last thing Winchester needs, especially when the movie turns pretty much into a shooting spree towards the end. Like some of the staircases and hallways that adorn Mrs. Winchester’s edifice, the movie twists and turns and ultimately leads nowhere.
Winchester is out in theaters today (Friday, February 2).