By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke and Sarah Snook
Directed by The Spierig Brothers
Written by Tom Vaughan and The Spierig Brothers
The Winchester Mystery House of San Jose, CA, with its seemingly random layout and labyrinthine hallways to nowhere, is a natural habitat for a horror film. (It previously inspired the original Stephen King TV miniseries ROSE RED.) Much of WINCHESTER, which opened Friday with no critics’ screenings, however, could have taken place in any old mansion.
The bizarre construction, which was ordered by firearms heiress Sarah Winchester in 1884 and continued up to her death in 1922, was reportedly at least partially inspired by her belief in ghosts. Specifically, the spirits of people who had been killed by the weapons that made her husband’s and then her own fortune. Considering the fierce and ongoing debate about gun violence, WINCHESTER could and should have been an especially pointed supernatural drama. Instead, this potentially distinctive aspect is underserved in the film as well.
What we get is a very tradition-bound story of a skeptic who don’t believe in no ghosts, until he enters an environment where his doubts are challenged. Not that Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is a completely rational man; still reeling from the death of his wife, he doses himself with drops of toxic laudanum to ease his psychic pain. The board of directors of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. is unaware of this when they hire Price to evaluate Sarah’s mental state, which occasions his moving into the ever-expanding, seven-story maze. Once there, Sarah (Helen Mirren) seems less crazy than determined—to both offer a way station for the spirits of Winchester victims, and keep them confined (in rooms secured shut with 13 nails each) until they can pass on.
These are solid ingredients for a scare film with thematic ambition, and WINCHESTER is undeniably well-crafted—kudos to cinematographer Ben Nott and production designer Matthew Putland for creating an enveloping, tactile environment—around two leads who deliver their lines with conviction. The problem is that the movie gives Sarah and Price too much to say. The screenplay, by Tom Vaughan and directing brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, plays like a first draft, with way too much explained in expositional dialogue than fully dramatized. The Spierigs, who worked a number of fun variations on vampire lore in DAYBREAKERS, here offer something more akin to their proficiently filmed but standard-issue JIGSAW from last fall. There’s an overabundance of music-blasting jump-scares, both genuine spooks and false alarms, and we’re taken outside for establishing shots of the expansive house too often for a sense of claustrophobic dread to take hold.
WINCHESTER is certainly watchable, and keeps you engaged on a surface level throughout, while eliciting the nagging sense that not enough is being done with the possibilities. Considering that the ghosts can do just about anything in this movie—possess people, induce flashbacks, physically manipulate objects—it’s a disappointment that they don’t exploit the opportunity to play with the already tortured architecture. Nor are the violence-begets-violence possibilities of the subject matter explored beyond ghostly-revenge basics. The key specter is that of a Confederate soldier seeking ongoing revenge for Civil War casualties; he’s played by Eamon Farren of MOHAWK, which does a more persuasive job of exploring historical atrocities in a genre context. The Spierigs take a commendable back-to-basics approach to onscreen fearmongering here—until the climax, they eschew CGI and embrace practical, makeup and lighting effects—but they should have been more progressive with their storytelling.