Michael Potts | 24/02/2018
Another horror film that prefers jump scares to introducing anything genuinely unsettling, Winchester takes the well-trodden haunted house premise but fails to provide anything beyond frustration.
Directed by the Spierig Brothers, the film is set in California in 1906 and follows drug addicted Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke) who, whilst grieving for his deceased wife, is contracted by the Winchester firearms company to perform a psychological assessment of majority shareholder, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Sarah, having lost her husband and child and inherited the company, owns a house in San Jose which she is having renovated constantly, and professes a belief that she is haunted by the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles. Living with her is her niece, Marion Marriott (Sarah Snook), and her young son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey). While initially dismissive, Price begins to accept that the spirits Sarah senses are not the delusions of an aging woman, but are quite real, and some are indeed quite malevolent. Price must control his fears and confront his past in order to overcome the demons of the Winchester House.
Winchester is constantly trying to scare you. This may well be the point of a horror movie, but it doesn’t necessarily prove to be a positive. The film is addicted to flashing something superficially intimidating for a split second to get a rise out of the audience. Done in anything but moderation here, it starts to become annoying and tiresome before long. The film will get you more than once, but unless these types of frights are your thing, you're not likely to enjoy it for long. What is worse is that when the jump scares taper off towards the end, we aren’t left with anything that is actually frightening. The ghosts lose any real semblance of terror when you are finally able to get a good look at them.
In a related vein, the atmosphere and lighting of the film are complementary to the type of horror the Spierig Brothers employ. Primarily set at night, even during the day the scenes are kept predominantly dark and eerie by confining most sequences to inside the house, and the tone is well set. On its own this would be commendable, but it loses some force considering the darkness is mostly just for the movie to throw things out of the shadows at you as often as it can.
The acting performances are mostly passable, but there’s not much to write home about. Jason Clarke is probably the best of the bunch, but he is hampered by a deeply rote script. Helen Mirren fares little better and her role is middling, though she does a lot with very little. There is little to say for the rest, who pass by in a haze of unremarkability, only to mention as an aside that Sarah Snook seemed to have one or two embarrassing instances where she wavers from her character’s American accent into her native Australian.
Perhaps Winchester’s greatest sin, though, is its construction of its supernatural element. It becomes increasingly clear that the writers are praying that you aren’t paying attention to what you are watching. For all the explanation that we are given throughout, certain parts are contradicted or ignored later on either for the sake of the plot or to add to the scare factor. Add to this a strange uncertainty as to whether the film is trying to moralise at the audience and is failing, or is just saying things to suit the story, and you’ve got a piece of cinema that can’t quite get a grip on what it’s trying to achieve.
Winchester tries hard, no doubt sincerely, to be a meaningful yet frightening experience. Unfortunately it is held back by inconsistent, poor scripting, and an overreliance on cheap jump scares.