Main cast: Helen Mirren (Sarah Winchester), Jason Clarke (Dr Eric Price), Sarah Snook (Marian Marriott), Finn Scicluna-O’Prey (Henry Marriott), Angus Sampson (John Hansen), Laura Brent (Ruby Price), Tyler Coppin (Arthur Gates), and Eamon Farren (Benjamin Block)
Directors: The Spierig Brothers
One of the most annoying things to happen to horror movies is the use of CGI to replace stop motion and puppetry – the result is often far more fake-looking than scary. Perhaps not surprisingly, the rise of CGI use is also followed shortly by reliance of jump scares over momentum-building and atmosphere to deliver the scares. Monsters and spooks no longer want to kill people, they instead play peek-a-boo with the camera because that’s what “horror” is all about these days. And sadly, while I was initially hoping that the Spierig brothers will do something different with Winchester, it ends up being another derivative checking off of the laundry list of clichés to add to the growing pile of disposable garbage horror movies in the market.
Most fans of horror and occult would have heard of the Winchester house – a large mansion designed by what seems like a deranged architect, with rooms and stairs that lead nowhere and dead ends galore. The owner of the house, Sarah Winchester, was the widow of the man who designed and later founded the company that manufactured the Winchester rifles, and the widow claimed that the house was designed that way to throw off the vengeful ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles.
This movie offers a take of Sarah Winchester’s motives. What if she looks like Helen Mirren? What if the widow doesn’t want to avoid the ghosts, but instead she reaches out to them via her house? In this movie, she somehow manages to hear the spirits, and builds this house in San Jose, in a location that draws the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles to that place. With a team of builders led by John Hansen working around the clock, she will let the ghosts guide her in designing replicas of the rooms in which these ghosts were killed. Once a room is completed, the ghost manages to manifest in this world, and Sarah will then communicate with it, consoling it into forgiving her and her family before letting the spirit move on to the afterlife. Should the spirit refuses, the room is then barricaded with thirteen nails, so that the ghost can haunt the room without bothering other people.
But what happens when if a ghost refuses her advances, and is powerful enough to threaten her as well as those people she cares for?
Dr Eric Price will find out soon enough. A drunk addicted to laudanum after the suicide of his wife Ruby, he spends his days in pointless stupor until the Winchester company hires him to visit Sarah and assess whether she’s still mentally sound. You see, Sarah owns 51% of the company shares, and the rest of the stakeholders are not too pleased on having to defer to someone who is off building a haunted house 24/7. They count on Eric to be willing to accept some “incentives” to give an “accurate” assessment – one to their liking, of course – and Eric seems up to it, until weird things begin to happen to everyone in the house.
Sadly, Winchester is another movie featuring CGIs that make the ghosts look more like props in a new theme park roller coaster ride than anything menacing, and worse, the evil ghost is a complete flop as he spends more time waiting as the camera pans and the music swells to go boo than actually committing mayhem and murder. Instead of actually killing people like any self-respected ghost will, this one postures, sends things flying here and there, and while it displays an impressive ability to teleport, he takes ages to make any move that his only successful kills here are two inconsequential members of the staff. He has Sarah and Sarah’s family in his grip many times, but does he just snap their necks or something? Of course not – jump scares come first, darlings, so here’s more boring, done-to-death “scary” scenes of people being thrown across the room like a poltergeist frat bash.
If the epic fail that is the ghostly villain isn’t bad enough, the bulk of the movie sees Eric wandering in dark places (JUMP SCARE! JUMP SCARE! JUMP SCARE!). Meanwhile, Sarah Snook must have the easiest time ever when it comes to her lines, as she spends the bulk of the movie whispering the name of her character’s son as she wanders deeper and deeper into darker corners alone to look for that irritating brat. Henry, naturally, is the plot device that vanishes every time someone needs an excuse for people to creep around in dark places for JUMP SCARE! JUMP SCARE! JUMP SCARE! Anyone scared yet?
On the bright side, Helen Mirren looks like she’s having fun. This movie is probably like a paid vacation for her.
Dreary, pointless, totally forgettable with a flop ghost who is more concerned with generating jump scares, Winchester is tailor-made for fans of – what else? – jump scares. Others may just want to exert a little effort to find something else more interesting to watch.