Ghosts, along with the haunted house, remain a core staple of the horror genre, and like with any genre element, there are more successful interpretations than others. The crux lies in thoughtfully and critically engaging with grief, the past, and how the two are connected. Winchester, which was directed by the Spierig Brothers, lacks much of these elements, but makes for a passable paint-by-numbers haunted house flick.
The Winchester movie largely follows the pop culture understanding of the Winchester mansion and its construction: Sarah (Helen Mirren), a widow and the heiress of the firearm fortune, has undertaken the building of the mansion in order to reconcile with the spirits of those killed by Winchesters. But she also remains in majority control of the company, and those in power are itching to get the majority share of the company. Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is sent to conduct an evaluation of her mental well-being in order to determine if she is still fit to run the company or if she is a madwoman.
This is seemingly the perfect setting for a specifically American haunted house flick: Winchesters are a hallmark of the westward expansion and the Civil War, both incredibly bloody periods in American history, and the haunted house can be a perfect narrative frame to interrogate the past. But here, that does not quite pan out. And though the Spierig Brothers made previous ventures into horror with Daybreakers, a relatively fun vampire flick, and Jigsaw, Winchester does not manage to land the same level of success.
From the start, Winchester assumes the viewer has a certain level of familiarity with the legacy of the house and what led to its creation, leading to a flat opening with your genre-standard sleepwalking, ominously pointing creepy kid moment in the first couple minutes. Though this supposition of familiarity isn’t necessarily a faulty one, taking a few moments to bridge any potential gap with brief written exposition would have helped this moment sink its teeth in a little more meaningfully. Additional exposition, featuring Price and information on the home, which arrives just a location and scene shift later, could have been brought to the very beginning of the film to make for a stronger start.
The immediate assertions made by the doctor early on focus around the contrast between the real and the unreal, reducing fear to something that only exists in the mind. However, the existence of such a house, folding in on itself and in a constant state of construction, reflects the maze-like mind of the widow, while also serving as a direct challenge to the doctor’s earlier (rather lazy) assertions about a feeling only existing in the mind.
In its own way, the Winchester mansion is among the ultimate in America’s cultural haunted houses: the widow, former wife of the largest shareholder of the Winchester gun company—firearms that were among the forefront in weaponry to commit one of the worst genocides within recent generations—looks to make amends with the dead through keeping the house in a constant state of construction. Though Sarah Winchester was not personally responsible for the Winchester legacy, she sought to redress the harm in her way, though the method was deeply flawed. The majority of characters in the story are also haunted by their own losses.
I should also be abundantly honest: I will forgive a haunted house flick murder if the house is pretty enough. The opulence of the Winchester mansion falls neatly into this bias. What also strikes me about the story of the Winchester house is that this level of opulence—how Sarah’s niece mentions a specific section of parquet flooring is made from six different woods, for example— is itself a ghost. Though income inequality is at an unprecedented staggering severity, this image of wealth in America dates to a very specific period in history, ending roughly somewhere around the 1920s or 30s. (None of the homes that truly make me think “haunted house material” in the traditional sense really date much past this period, if at all.) Beyond the moral question of amassing this much wealth, there is also an interesting subtext to how wealth has distributed throughout the history of the U.S.; the 1800s is marked by wealth being largely focused in the railroad, oil, and, of course, firearms, among other, similar ventures.
One of the off-putting details, however, stems from the backstory of one of the secondary characters, someone who killed 15 people working for Winchester out of vengeance for his own brothers being killed in the Civil War. Elements of the story like this one provide an opportunity to get at the heart of the U.S.’s singular, and frankly tragic, relationship with and near fetishization of firearms. But that does not happen: Instead, we are dealt a deflecting moment where a part of the house collapses. The way this part of the story is doled out rings flat in such a way that seems to assert that mass shootings should become a kind of expected norm.
Though I sense that there was earnest effort on the part of the actors to sell Winchester, performances were ultimately wooden, with very little chemistry between cast members. Mirren, however, absolutely sold the role of Sarah; her attempts to engage Price’s character in the first half of the movie read as incredibly genuine. She is a believable matriarch of the Winchester family, but this autonomy is seemingly inexplicably taken away from her roughly past the halfway point: She goes from acting with sure belief in what she does, to the uncertain footing of saying “Let me prove it to you” to someone, without a real reason as to why.
The scares in Winchester are also your standard jump scares, which I think can work in haunted house stories, but used sparingly at most. But this is the only form of delivery for any kind of scare, and as a result, any sense of dread has holes consistently bored into it, leaving any fear to leak out. Additionally, though grief and fear may be meaningfully tied together, the writing in Winchester disjoints the two, misplacing the movie conclusion in contrast with Sarah’s symbolic letting go of her own loss, though there was no engagement with the latter beyond a brief handful of mentions.
If you read Winchester as a paint-by-numbers haunted house flick, you could certainly do worse. But for me, this is a movie of would-bes: With a track record including Daybreakers and Predestination, the Spierig Brothers’ presence in this project made me hopeful for more. Though Predestination is truly a different kind of film, dealing largely with crime and time travel and the complicated questions that come with each, I am left in Winchester’s wake wondering where that level of thoughtfulness and craft went. My gut tells me, though, that the missed opportunities to engage with such critical elements of America’s culture and past might at least partially be attributed to a drive to get out a spooky blockbuster, and not the fault of the directors. The mark is completely missed, however, when the plans for the spooky blockbuster don’t pan out at all.
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