The 2018 horror film Winchester, written and directed by the Spierig Brothers, was not about the Supernatural adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester — much as we wish it was — but was in fact based on the history of the Winchester mansion, also known as The Mystery House or The House That Ghosts Built, a place that is said to be one of the most haunted houses in America. Sounds like a perfect location for a horror movie, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the filmmakers managed to drop the ball in every way shape and form, and we are stuck with a film that should have been called Jump Scare: The Movie.
The movie follows Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a womanizing drug addict with a tragic past, as he is hired by the Board of Directors for Winchester Repeating Rifle Company to assess the mental facilities of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Sarah Winchester owns 50% of the company’s stocks, so Price is to determine if she is fit enough to remain in control of the family business. It’s clear that the Board would really like it if Price would find Mrs. Winchester unfit, as they blatantly offer him more money if they get that desired result, and so Doctor Price enters this job on very dubious footing, but I guess when you are a laudanum addict you take whatever jobs come your way.
Sarah Winchester is the widow of famed gun manufacturer William Wirt Winchester, and heir to the vast fortune the sales of these weapons of death have accrued over the years. Because of this, Sarah is under the belief that she must continually add rooms to this sprawling mansion, with construction running day and night, so that it can house all the spectral victims of the Winchester Rifle. She tells Price that this helps spirits find peace — why being stuck in a small room in a weird mansion would bring peace to a ghost is never fully explained — but for those spirits too angry to move to the other side, well she locks them in their rooms, using a board and “thirteen nails” to keep them caged.
Clearly, Sarah Winchester is nuts, or at least certifiably eccentric, so giving the Board of Directors their desired result should be no problem, but then Price himself starts seeing ghosts. At first, he takes the fleeting images of creepy apparitions to be hallucinations brought on by his drug use, but then later, when his laudanum is confiscated, he chalks them up as symptoms of withdrawal. What follows is series of scenes where Price stumbles down dark hallways — ones often inhabited by Helen Mirren doing her “Woman in Black” impressions — with the occasional ghostie arriving to pop out and say BOO! At no point in the film’s 90 plus minute run-time does anything even remotely scary occur (I do not count cheap jump scares as true scares), and as this movie is set in one of the creepiest houses in the world, that’s a considerable achievement.
The film is not helped by legendary actress Helen Mirren, as the infamous Sarah Winchester, who is clearly in Boat Payment Theater Mode, and I’m assuming Jason Clarke did this film just to have a worse entry on his IMDB page than Terminator Genisys, but the fault really must be laid at the feet of Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, who both wrote and directed this thing. Making a horror movie about “The House That Ghosts Built” should have been a cakewalk, but somehow they failed, and making it a historical period piece may have been the key problem, as they veer wildly from historical fact to their own nonsensical backstory.
Now, I’m not one who demands that historical films stay completely true to the actual events they depict, and certainly not when said film is a horror picture, but major plot points the Spierig Brothers come up with fly right in the face of facts. A key example of this comes in the form of the “angry spirit” harassing Sarah and her family. He is a Civil War soldier, whose brothers were killed in the war by a Remington rifle, even though the first Winchester lever-action model did not appear until after the war. We then learn that the surviving brother later walked into the Winchester Showroom and massacred dozens of people, which is another completely fabricated event — and all of this I could have forgiven if at any point something even vaguely scary would have happened.
Sarah and Doctor Price are not alone in this big spooky house, the place is constantly being labored on by construction workers, and though this mansion must also have a staff consisting of dozens of maids and butlers, none of them ever see anything, and their very existence removes the solitary nature of terror that a haunted house movie needs to build proper suspense. Also in the house is Sarah’s niece Marion Marriott (Sarah Snook), who has brought her boy Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) along to stay at her aunt’s spooky-ass mansion, after her own family tragedy. We are subjected to repeated scenes of young Henry being possessed by an angry spirit, and the only thing I can say about these moments is that somebody should have told the Spierig Brothers that putting a canvas mailbag over a kid’s head isn’t creepy, it’s actually kind of goofy. And the film constantly forgets these two “guests” are in the house, but as they are both quite forgettable, and unnecessary, this is not surprising.
Winchester fails at almost every aspect of the horror movie genre. We have no compelling protagonists, the mystery behind the ghost is contrived and lame, the film relies almost solely on jump scares, and worst of all, it doesn’t even follow its own rules. We were told that ghosts are trapped in rooms by the placing of a board — nailed 13 times — across it, but during the big ghostly showdown, we see the nails seemingly coming out of the doors on their own. Were Sarah’s theories of spiritual confinement wrong? Was the angry Civil War ghost the one freeing his spectral buddies? If the last one is the case, that is one dumb ghost, as the ones it freed end up helping Price defeat the angry ghost, and if you’ve guessed that Price’s own tragic past will come back to “haunt” him, well give yourself a cookie.
If the Spierig Brothers wanted to make a horror set in the Winchester mansion, they’d have probably been better off setting it in modern times — maybe go with a documentary crew staying the night — and then they could have gone all balls-to-the-walls with the frights, but the film we ended up with seemed both constrained by the historical setting as well as showing a good deal of contempt for it. I’m not saying you can’t make a good horror movie set in the 1860s — the history of the place is just rife with possibilities — but the decision made by the filmmakers here fails to not only scare the viewer, which once again is an achievement in this setting, but they annoy them instead. Winchester is guilty of the greatest crime that can be leveled at a horror movie, that of being annoying and boring. Give this movie a pass and watch Sam and Dean Winchester fight ghosts and monsters instead.
With the subject matter of the true story of “House That Ghost Built” as the basis for a horror movie seems like a great idea, unfortunately that was the last good idea the Spierig Brothers had, this film is mess from the first moment until the last. The only positive thing I can say about Winchester is that the set designs were quite nice.