“Inspired by actual events.”
Winchester is similar to a lot of horror films in that it starts with the ominous “Inspired by actual events” nonsense. I don’t know why, but this annoys me more than anything. It should say “Inspired by an actual setting” if it has to say something. The Winchester Mad House is fairly well known, and I am honestly surprised that a film hasn’t been made about it before (or if there has been one I have not heard of it). Anyway, Sarah Winchester (played here by Helen Mirren) historically did keep building onto her mansion, and claimed these additions were some sort of contrition for all the people killed by Winchester Firearms.
The real story is kind of interesting, and the mansion now marks one of the “must see haunted attractions” in North America. The house is illogical, complete with stairs and doors to nowhere, no rhyme or reason, and an overall bizarre structure. One of the reasons I wanted to give this PG-13 horror flick a chance is that I was curious to what they would do with the setting. The strange mansion had the potential to allow this film to break the standard haunted house tropes and do something unique. Spoiler alert: they don’t.
The setting is shamefully wasted as this quickly becomes another haunted house movie, which aside from set dressing is more or less indistinguishable from the hundreds of other films of this ilk. Why Mirren would opt for this makes me imagine at one point during production there was something more to the story.
Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is sent to the Winchester mansion to assess the mental stability of Sarah. He is primed by the board members to come to the “right decision” and doing so will absolve him of all his debts. Price is informed that for years Sarah has ceaselessly built upon the estate, and her erratic behavior seems to be nothing new—so why there is any urgency to Price’s quest is never discussed.
The film drops any sort of mystery surrounding whether or not the ghosts are real by making sure we side with Sarah, and the continuously insisting she is correct for more or less the rest of the film. More time is spent force-feeding us the idea that the house is indeed haunted than on any of the ghosts, characters, lore, or anything else. We end up with a bunch of nameless ghosts who serve as broad representations of historical violence. The lack of development of these characters, in favor of giving Mirren as much screen time as possible, makes these historical nods cheap at best. It is a horror film, we get it, we accept it, can we move on? A better film might have played with ambiguity of whether or not it is mass hysteria, but this one craps the bed on this idea.
There are a bunch of ghosts in the house, but we really only interact with a couple. The main bad guy is someone who was killed during the Civil War, which is odd seeing how Winchester rifles weren’t used in that war, but whatever, ghosts are dumb. I didn’t care about this ghost, and he isn’t scary. Instead of building any dread or suspense the film opts for pointless jump scares. Sure, a couple of them aren’t bad, but there is no creep factor to this film at all. A movie about a ghost that lives in a toilet and shoves your poop back where it came from would be more disturbing than this snooze fest.
The most bizarre thing about this movie is how boring it is. The first half seems to be pretending to be a deeper film than it actually is, and the second half throws all that out of the window in favor of chaos. Neither half works, and with a bunch of half-characters it is hard to be invested in anything. The primary victim of the film, a young boy, is given about three lines of dialogue throughout the whole thing—why am I supposed to care? Mirren is usually reliable in her roles, but she is just phoning it in here. There is no depth to any of these characters.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that there is an actual story here, and we will likely not see it any time soon. What drove Sarah to create on of the most illogical structures in the world deserves better than a half-baked cash-grab of a horror film designed to creep out teens. Absolutely not worth the time. 3/10