Review: Winchester (2018)

The Winchester mansion in San Jose, California is one of the most fascinating human (or non-human???) phenomena of the modern day. The house was built under the instruction of Sarah Winchester, the widowed wife of William Winchester, the namesake and person largely responsible for the success of the Winchester gun company. After her husband’s death, Sarah Winchester became a recluse – only one photograph of her after her husband’s death exists – and began a seemingly perpetual construction project on her home. Her reasons for doing so have been the center of superstitious speculation, and this film is here to confirm that.

Why couldn’t the whole movie have just been Helen?

Winchester follows a psychiatrist named Eric Price who is hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to conduct a psychological evaluation of the mysterious Sarah Winchester. Price journeys to her home – a massive, maze-like structure with hundreds of rooms that seem to adhere to no consistent pattern. Rumors have spread of the Winchester home being something of a haunted house, and Price’s skepticism fades as he begins to believe some of the rumors after meeting Sarah Sinchester. What Price discovers is that Mrs. Winchester believes each of the rooms houses the spirit of someone killed by one of her husband’s guns. After Price’s arrival, however, one spirit’s power begins to increase, putting everyone’s lives in danger.

Helen Mirren is the big name attached to the film, stepping into a genre that is quite out of the ordinary for her. The very casting of Mirren in the titular role adds a certain prestige to the film that is desperately needed. With Mirren involved, it’s easy to watch this film much differently than you would any other horror film, regardless of whether it’s a period piece. Mirren is obviously good in the role, though she lacks any opportunity to doing anything extraordinary, mostly because this genre rarely presents a character where this is possible (I love that Daniel Kaluuya was Oscar-nominated for Get Out, but I still don’t know how it happened). Regardless of what actually happened with her performance or character, Mirren improves the film just with her presence – an improvement which was desperately needed.

I’ll be honest, the interior sets are fantastic

Winchester is something of a frustrating film to me because its history and premise provide it with rare potential. Seriously, the premise of this story is insanely wild and almost unbelievable, even in the context of a horror film. But because Sarah Winchester was a real person, and the Winchester mansion is a real building, this ridiculous story is validified, giving this movie better story potential than perhaps any horror flick this decade. Unfortunately, when we actually get into the plot, it proves itself to be tragically underdeveloped, placing focus in weird places, and making you wonder why in the world this is the story we’re being told.

The first half of this film is arguably good. As the story is being introduced, we are still limited to the premise of the film. Even some of the embellishments of the premise were fantastic – Helen Mirren’s sketches were an awesome idea. The problem is that as soon as the film begins to move away from the premise and into the plot, the plot (and specifically the villain) they choose is confusingly irrelevant. In another context, this story might be cool, but in the context of the Winchester story, the reason for choosing this plot is confusing and ultimately impractical. Why is this ghost so much more powerful than the rest? Why is his story the one we decide to zero in on? These important questions are left entirely unanswered.

There are hints early on in the film of a narrative and villain that is more closely tied to Eric Price, the film’s protagonist. Albeit cliché, this would have been a very practical villain for this story. For some reason, however, this entire subplot is concluded in one short scene, allowing space for the most impractical villain of the horror genre. Sure, it dodges a cliché, but does so in the most confusing manner possible.

Seriously. Who is this guy? Cillian Murphy’s cousin?

Winchester contains a really, really bad screenplay, and this taints the entire film. The Speirig Brothers, who last year gave us Jigsaw, are credited with directing the film, as well as doing the “rewrites” of Tom Vaughan’s screenplay. I’m not sure whether the blame of this plot falls to Vaughan or the Speirigs, but whoever it was totally ruined the Winchester story. Since this plot is so bad, it not only ruins a good premise, it puts the audience in too quizzical a mood to be able to enjoy a climax. Visually, the climax of this movie is impressive, and without context, it might be entertaining. But since we know what’s going on (even though we don’t know why it’s going on), we’re just too confused by the plot to be able to enjoy it.

If you read enough of my reviews, you’ll observe that I’m probably too focused on story and characters. What I think Winchester helps to prove, however, is that story matters more than just about anything else. This film has several good jump scares, but as the film progresses, the effect of those scares is lessened by our desperate attempts to figure out the plot. Especially with a premise as good is this one, Winchester totally squanders its best potential, making for an incredibly disappointing film.

I give Winchester a 3.2/10