Winchester: The House That Ghosts BuiltReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/05/18 04:45:02
"Winchester" is one of those movies that is just good enough that one can understand why it attracted a fair amount of talent while also falling well short of its potential. It's full of enough good performances, solid ideas, and capable work that it's especially disappointing when it eventually shows a lack of ambition, or at the very least, the inability to deliver on its earlier potential.The Winchester in question is Sarah (Helen Mirren), the widow who still owns 51% of the Winchester Repeating Rifle Company and whose unusual behavior goes well past a belief in spiritualism that is excessive even for 1906, but to constant expansion and renovation of her house, now a seven-story structure with little apparent rhyme or reason, with rooms demolished as often as they are added. The board therefore hires a psychiatrist, one Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), to examine her, with the implication of a bonus if the abuser of various substances issues the "correct" evaluation. And so he goes to the house in San Jose, where Sarah lives with niece Marion (Sarah Snook), her son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey), a small army of servants, and builders working around the clock, seven days a week. Her claim that the constant construction is to draw out the ghosts of those killed by the family's rifles is peculiar, but strange enough things are going on to potentially shape Price's skepticism.
The Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter) are one of genre film's more interesting teams, if not one of the more prolific ones (this is just their fifth feature starting from Undead in 2003, and that includes last year's franchise work on Jigsaw), and the story of Sarah and the Winchester House isn't necessarily a stretch for them but does give them a chance to come up with some striking visuals and engage in a little bit of world-building. They and original screenwriter Tom Vaughan do an admirable job of building a supernatural story that makes sense by its own internal logic, slips into a period setting fairly smoothly, and still leaves room for surprises and scares. They're pretty good at knowing when to use a jump and when to have something silent and imposing, and there's enough understanding that the audience knows many of the tricks to make scenes like an early one where a mirror keeps coming into view a little more fun. Winchester may not be the meticulously realized world of Daybreakers or the perfect pretzel twist of Predestination, and it's not always put together with the lightest touch, but there's a bit more thought to how this all fits together than many horror movies display.
And yet, it often feels like the film could have a bit more. Take, for instance, the way the film treats the Winchester House, the centerpiece of and inspiration for the story. Even in 1906, with twenty more years of construction ahead of it, it's said to be a sprawling, perverse structure, the symptom of an eccentric (and possibly mad) widow's obsession. But it never quite becomes that on-screen; story and presumably budget factors find the characters limited to a small fraction of its layout, with relatively few of its strange corners coming into play; a setting that seems like it could lead to a head-spinning final chase is instead locked down into two rooms, with all of the important action going on in one. The filmmakers never truly resolve its themes, either - the idea that weapon makers bear responsibility for how their wares are used is a solid foundation for the film and something that makes this period piece very contemporary, with the Spierig Brothers staging a pivotal scene to explicitly remind the audience of a modern mass shooting, but in the end, a gun is a useful tool. Guns are at the center of this film's mythology, and the filmmakers never deviate from that, but they can't quite stick the landing.
On the other hand, there's a certain delight in watching Helen Mirren tackle the role of Sarah Winchester; scary movies don't land someone with her body of work very often, and it makes Sarah far more interesting than the one-dimensional obsessive she might have been. Sarah may be delusional, but she's also lucid, able to hold her own with her those around her and convince sell the audience on the possibility of occult explanations with her certainty and not just knowing the movie for which one had purchased a ticket. She plays well off Jason Clarke, who can often come across as a placeholder for a more interesting actor but moves through this movie with an enjoyable self-awareness; the actor's awareness that he's in something a bit off translates to the character shaking his head at the bizarre situation he's in while still giving his own tragedies weight. And Sarah Snook is impressive as the title character's strong but conflicted niece.It's a good enough story that you can see how the production landed Helen Mirren, and for most of the movie it comes together well, a ghost story with a little bit of heft despite its commitment to being the fun, thrilling sort of scary. There just doesn't wind up being enough to make it a great one It comes together well enough to satisfy, not quite enough to impress.
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