01st Jun2018

‘Winchester’ DVD Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Angus Sampson, Laura Brent, Tyler Coppin, Eamon Farren, Thor Carlsson, Emm Wiseman | Written by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig, Tom Vaughan | Directed by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig

winchester-dvd

Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke star in this haunted house horror that’s based on the true story of The Winchester Mystery House. It’s directed by the Spierig Brothers, the German-born Australian directing duo whose previous films include 2014′s time-loop sci-fi Predestination and the recent Saw reboot, Jigsaw.

Set in San Francisco in 1906 (which ought to give history buffs something of a heads-up), Winchester centres on the true story of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the widow of the inventor of the Winchester repeating rifle and heir to the company’s vast fortune. Wracked with guilt over all the deaths her company has caused and haunted by their spirits, Sarah has devoted her widowhood to building a continually expanding mansion (100 rooms and counting in 1906, the final total would be close to 160), intending to offer peace to the ghost of each person killed by a Winchester rifle.

Naturally, such behaviour doesn’t sit well with the Winchester board, so they dispatch grieving, laudanum-addicted psychiatrist Dr Price (Jason Clarke) to rule on Sarah’s sanity, so they can remove her from the company. However, Sarah has requested Price personally, aware that his own tragic history makes him the perfect candidate to help her exorcise a particularly troublesome spirit.

Mirren is on solid form as Mrs Winchester, cutting a striking figure in a black crepe get-up that makes her look like Queen Victoria and displaying an unwavering conviction in her grand design. However, though she’s never less than committed, you can’t help wishing she’d camped it up a bit. Clarke, in turn, is smartly cast, because he’s not quite famous enough for you to be comfortably certain that he’ll make it to the final reel. However, Sarah Snook (who also starred in Predestination) is more or less completely wasted as Sarah’s niece and is too often reduced to just standing around looking a bit vacant.

Aided by the imaginative set design (the house is very Escher-like, with staircases that go nowhere), the Spierig Brothers do an effective job with all the usual haunted house tropes, establishing a suitably creepy atmosphere and supplying a steady stream of decent jump scares (one, involving a ghost-powered roller skate, is particularly good). Similarly, the film has some fun with the various quirks of the house, with each different element (a system of communication tubes, a lengthy, twisting ramp instead of a staircase, a cupboard that’s actually a doorway) being introduced early and put to suitably creepy use later on.

On top of that, the script makes clever use of the 1906 earthquake, establishing the idea that all the malevolent spirits are nailed into their rooms and then having the earthquake break all those doors open. The problem is that the Spierigs fail to capitalise on that idea – it should have been an excuse to unleash real terror and mayhem, and the actual result is a little disappointing.

It’s also fair to say that there are several elements that don’t really work, most notably a subplot involving Sarah’s occasionally possessed nephew, which falls flat partly because the young actor (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) never really convinces in the role. On a similar note, the film’s resolution doesn’t really make any sense and has a distinct air of ‘Will this do?’ about it. That said, it’s hard to fault the film’s good intentions – this may be the first haunted house move with a resonant message about gun control.

Ultimately, Winchester is never less than watchable and serves up a decent helping of jump scares, but it never quite gets beyond that surface level and passes up several opportunities to become something darker and more interesting.

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