The Winchester house is a very real thing. Following the death of her husband, famed gun magnate William Manchester, Sarah Winchester continued to add onto the San Jose house that they had previously purchased together in an attempt to appease the ghosts that she claimed were haunting her. Construction on the house never stopped until her death in 1922. Over the decades, many have claimed that the house is haunted (with claims persisting to this day) and it has built up quite a legend for itself, even inspiring Stephen King to write a teleplay, which became the made-for-television movie Rose Red. Now, brothers Michael and Peter Spierig (Jigsaw) adapt the story for the big screen and they’ve landed Helen Mirren for the lead role of Sarah Winchester.
Winchester is a brilliant example of a movie that is inspired by a true story and not based on a true story. The foundations and framework of the film are steeply rooted in truth, but the primary narrative is entirely fiction. Having established that, I would have thought that having the freedom to construct any desired story around the most unusual house in the world – with stairways leading into ceilings and oddly placed windows and pointless dead ends and on and on and on- which also happens to reportedly be haunted would be inspiration enough to craft something truly unique and original. But, disappointingly, that is not the case with Winchester.
As far as the traditional horror elements go, Winchester is a moderate success, depending upon what style of horror one prefers. The film is moody and atmospheric enough but generally excels with its jump scares – more so than most recent horror films. I was surprised by how many of the scare attempts occurred when I was truly, in no way, prepared for them. They are accompanied and delivered by some solid visuals, expertly designed and crafted by the fine folks in the art department. Genre fans should appreciate their efforts.
Despite that, modern horror has evolved beyond being able to rely solely upon scares if the filmmakers desire their final product to be anything truly memorable. Films like The Conjuring and It tapped into the public zeitgeist and became true societal phenomena by being more than simply scary. Those films were about the characters who were being victimized first and the horror second. Audiences were invested in the Warrens and the Losers Club.
While it’s clear that some effort was put into making both Sarah Winchester and Jason Clarke’s Eric Price sympathetic and relatable in Winchester, the effort largely goes wasted. The narrative just isn’t unique or dynamic enough to provide Mirren and Clarke with the necessary ammunition to transform the project into something that stands out amongst its competition. The writing isn’t “bad”. It’s just bland. Once the premise is established, the film comfortably falls back onto genre tropes without taking full advantage of the unrivaled setting (which was a gift) of the Winchester mansion. Outside of the scenes during which Price is exploring the house, it somehow never feels any different than any other old haunted house from a hundred other horror movies. And, even if they’re well timed and orchestrated, neither do the horror moments themselves. It’s all just more of the same.
If nothing else, Jason Clarke still manages to shine and make the most of what he’s given. Mirren is just fine, of course, but she could have handled this role as written with a severe head injury and a face full of Novocain. Clarke, however, is finally granted a lead role that he manages to hold on to. I feel like, for many, Clarke is one of those actors that is often recognized but is difficult to place. He has had bigger, more high-profile roles than this one, but has always been overshadowed. In Zero Dark Thirty, he had to share the screen with a fiercely determined Jessica Chastain. As John Connor in Terminator: Genisys, he was competing with Emilia Clarke and the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger. As George Wilson in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, he found himself nose-to-nose with Leonardo DiCaprio. But here, he truly takes the lead role (getting even more screen time than Mirren) and delivers a performance that won’t win awards, but was still injected with sincerity, soul, and vulnerability. For me, this was the best I’ve seen him and it’s a shame that it will go almost entirely unnoticed.
What it all comes down to is that Winchester is a mediocre horror film with a few bright spots. For diehard horror fans, that might be enough. For others, it won’t be. I feel like this was a missed opportunity to do something special, especially with a tremendously motivated Jason Clarke in tow. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The desire is there, but the follow-through is not, most likely due to the relative inexperience of the directors/screenwriters. Unlike most, I enjoyed their take on the Saw franchise with last year’s Jigsaw, so I’m not giving up on them. But this particular outing was more of a walk than a home run.
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