Winchester: The Film That Jump Scares Built
Review by Aaron Haughton
The Spierig brothers (Predestination, Daybreakers) follow up last year's Jigsaw with something even worse, Winchester: The House that Ghosts Built (or Winchester: The Film that Jump Scares Built, as I like to refer to it). The film is the living embodiment of contemporary clichéd horror and has very little working in its favor. Essentially, it's an exploitation of a pretty fascinating true story that is shaped into yet another "spooky" haunted house film; however, there is a silver lining here as well.
On an isolated stretch of land 50 miles outside of San Francisco sits the most haunted house in the world. Built by Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), heiress to the Winchester fortune, it's a house that knows no end. Constructed in an incessant twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week mania for decades, it stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To the outsider it looks like a monstrous monument to a disturbed woman's madness, but Sarah is not building for herself, her niece (Sarah Snook) or the troubled Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) whom she has summoned to the house — she is building a prison, an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts, and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle...
I have to admit, I was intrigued by the Winchester house as a shell for a horror film, despite the fact that nothing the Spierig brothers have put out has particularly called to me. The story of Sarah Winchester is an immensely interesting one, whether you're a believer in the supernatural or interested in the bizarre manifestations of human grief and guilt. I've always thought from the moment I learned of the storied past of the Winchester mansion that any potential film about it would be pretty interesting.
Well, I couldn't have been more wrong there...
Winchester is an absolute groan fest of flimsy storytelling, hand-me-down scares, and hackneyed moments of tension and suspense. Events just seem to happen, and the story unfolds in uninspired and increasingly uninteresting ways. The Spierig brothers set up what could be interesting themes (illusion v. reality, absolution of guilt), but when everything's said and done, they're only interested in making a film about a big house that goes bump in the night.
Everything from the characters and their motivations to the atmosphere and scares feels lazy and cliché, and there's not really any aspect that comes off as even remotely creepy. The film may startle you with its jump scares aplenty, but that's only if you don't spy them coming miles away. Jump scares can be effective when they're warranted and built up properly, but Winchester just has ghost peeking around corners for no apparent reason.
Our protagonist, a doctor addicted to drugs to suppress the ghosts of his past, and his obvious parallels to Sarah Winchester (i.e. their grief and guilt over the past) are so on-the-nose that your eyes may roll to the point of falling out of their sockets. The film even adds unnecessary bloating by incorporating a weak b-story surrounding Sarah's niece and grandson (played by Sarah Snook and Finn Scicluna-O'Prey), who do absolutely nothing for the story other than serve as a conduit for more conspicuous spooks.
The film's biggest miss is its opportunity to engage in the conversation of gun control, which it opts out entirely. Instead, it seems to be saying that absolution from guilt needs to come from the barrel of a gun, even if you're a vengeful ghost...which leads me to the silver lining I mentioned earlier...
The film becomes so stupid and outlandishly silly that it becomes inadvertently funny. This is almost enough to make it somewhat enjoyable, but the performances never fully embrace the schlock elements enough to veer even slightly into the territory of Troll 2, The Room, or even last year's Wish Upon. Instead, it gravitates in the grey area with the occasional slip into the unintentionally funny. The best moment of the film's accidental comedy is when the doctor hears some spooky sounds at night and presses his ear up to the house's rudimentary intercom system in his room where — I shit you not — a ghost finger protrudes from the intercom pipe and nearly tickles the doctor's ear. This had me raring with laughter, and it totally reminded me of Scary Movie's glory hole ear violation scene.
Unfortunately, the film's unconscious comedy isn't enough to save this 2 hour snooze fest of sleepwalking performances and lazy writing. At the end of the day, Winchester is just another retreaded and rehashed horror film that we can plunge straight to the discount bin.
Rating: 1 spiritual smackdown outta 5.
What did you think of the film? Did you find any aspect of it effective, or did it all ring hollow for you too? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!