The horror film industry has no doubt hit critical mass with the number of haunted house flicks. It seems like every month, us movie goers are treated to another film trailer about people getting pantsed by another angry apparition in yet another haunted house.
Winchester falls into this category, and it’s a shame, because I didn’t mind this film for the most part. We get a haunted house, people living in it, and invisible baddies, but we also get a unique setting and some historical inspiration to carry the film along.
The film is set in San Jose, California in 1906, where we meet the accomplished, yet personally flawed, Doctor Eric Price. While combating personal demons of which we learn about later in the film, Price is given an assignment to conduct a psychiatric evaluation of the heiress, Sarah Winchester. As a quick historical note, Sarah Winchester was the wife of William Winchester, who developed the multi-repeating rifle which turned the tide of both the Civil War and the Indian Wars of the late-1800’s (think the AR-15 of its day).
Doctor Price travels to Winchester’s mansion, a multi-floored home that is continuously under construction. As with many a mystery house of the 1900’s, Winchester’s mansion comes complete with staircases leading to nowhere and oddly placed rooms. Eccentric as Winchester may seem, we learn that these rooms serve a purpose, as spirits of those killed by her husband’s firearm continually fill each of these rooms. Some are good spirits seeking their way to the afterlife, but others seek vengeance on Winchester and her kids. Price, as a result of his traumatic past, learns he is key to laying the evil spirits to rest, but can he do it with time running out?
Though Winchester is nothing special, there’s not too much to hate. The setting is believable, the characters are well-rounded, and every performer takes his or her part seriously. Jason Clarke is spotless as Doctor Price and his chemistry with the great Helen Mirren is perfect.
While this film is not hateable by any means, there are a few weaknesses that hinder it.
A good chunk of Winchester is dark, quite literally. There is some sunlight, but 75% of it is set under the cover of night. We have lots of candles blowing out and open shadowy areas rife with jump scares.
About those damn jumpscares — if I wasn’t fidgety at times, then I was awaiting the next assault on my senses. They don’t go overboard, but we do get enough predictable moments where we know the scare is coming and brace ourselves for the inevitable. It might make for a good “sleepover” kind of scare flick, but otherwise, I wasn’t too impressed with the use of this particular trope.
Speaking of tropes, I couldn’t help jotting down the numerous influences I noticed throughout the film. The more I thought about it, the more I figured we could easily recreate this movie by extracting certain scenes from numerous horror classics. We have a haunted mansion (The Shining), the protagonist as a 1900s investigator (Sleepy Hollow, though that was in the 1700s), a lot of ghosts ruining everybody’s weekend (The Haunting and Amityville movies), and a demon that is able to possess kids and summon earthquakes for the house alone (The Exorcist). This film was likely inspired by many great horror classics, but when it’s painfully obvious, it loses its impact.
Which brings me to the final and ultimate problem with this film. At the opening of this film, we are greeted to four words which can either make or break a film. “Inspired By True Events.”
Sarah Winchester was a real person, as was the house, and the eccentricity Winchester exhibited in building the house is well documented. But like the Amityville Horror and other famous haunted hoaxes, the story behind Winchester is likely an invention meant to kindle our interest while extracting cash from our wallets. Some in the audience, like myself, will be quick to research the actual house and make our own judgments. Of course, there will always be those few who actually believe in haunted houses, ghosts, goblins, and all that other crap because films like this tease us with the “Inspired By True Events” tag.
Once you get past those issues, the film is just a quintessential “okay” horror film. Time and effort went into this, and I’ll give credit where it’s do. I’d say it’s worth watching, but only if you’re new to the horror genre or haunted house flicks. Otherwise, it might be a bore.
Horror beginners may like it, horror veterans will yawn.