It’s easy to see what would otherwise be perfectly a taut, fierce, and suspenseful story inside Winchester. Sadly it’s buried underneath what is even more easy to see: a hackneyed, ham-fisted ghost story that devolves into what feels like a video game boss fight. A movie so tedious it makes even its silliest moments rote.
Lady Winchester (Helen Mirren) is the sole heir of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The board of directors is worried about her erratic behavior. They hire Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess Mrs. Winchester’s mental state and ascertain whether or not she should maintain a majority hold of the shares.
The 1900’s were simpler times. Back then when an eccentric millionaire behaved as if they were mentally unfit, the board ordered an evaluation of their mental state.
It seems Lady Winchester is haunted by the guilt of her husband’s invention, the Winchester rifle. She is troubled and haunted by the ghosts of the victims murdered by this Winchester rifle. They come to her by night and possess her until she draws a picture of a room. She then charges her workers to build the room.
After the room is built, she then tries to help the spirit pass over to the other side. If she fails, she locks the spirit into the room by nailing a board over the door with thirteen nails. If she succeeds, she demolishes the room and moves on.
The Spierig brothers, in the interest of sabotaging anything remotely fascinating, sideline Lady Winchester in favor of Dr. Price, a laudanum-addicted grieving husband whose wife committed suicide by shooting herself. Bet you’ll never guess what type of gun she killed herself with though!
Lady Winchester can communicate enough with them to convince them to move on, but she needs Eric because he’s the only one who can see them. You see there’s a new ghost in Winchester manor. One’s that’s more powerful and more angry, than any spirit before. Winchester has the distinction of being the only ghost story, to my mind, whose resolution involves a psychic and a ghost holding a gun on each other.
Winchester is a sluggish predictable bore. The brothers seem content to pad the runtime with every cliche in the book. If all of that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a third act reveal which in reality is a cheat. A character is revealed to be a ghost, but this can’t be true because we’ve seen him interacting with the rest of the staff and guests at least once.
Written by the Spierig brothers and Tom Vaughn, the story creaks more than the stairs of Winchester manor. Granted it’s foolish to look for logic in the heart of a horror movie. Even more foolish in a ghost story. But if a movie can’t be bothered to play by its own rules, then to hell with it.
If Price dealing with his own demons as well as the house’s weren’t enough, there’s a small boy, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). Every horror movie now and days, it seems, needs a small child. They do this as to have someone to put in peril for the beats where they need suspense and drama. Henry and his mother Marian (Sarah Snook) are Lady Winchester’s only remaining family. Snook’s Marian is given precious little to do but to moon over Henry and to issue vague and dire warnings to Eric when he first arrives.
Winchester is a waste of everyone involved. Clarke is a solid presence, and he does what he can with the material. Although calling what he has to work with ‘material’ seems to be a gross misunderstanding of the word.
The great Helen Mirren comports herself fantastically. Few actresses can convey so much strength and grief just by lifting a veil. God knows how much more insufferable Winchester might have been if not for her. Granted a happy compromise would be if we had both shied away from Winchester.
The production design and look of Winchester wobble throughout the whole movie. Yet, at times the camera will find itself in a fascinating place. Such as when Eric is walking down a hall, and he is greeted by one of the servants. We see Eric coming towards the camera, and then we see the servant on the left side of the screen. The scene then cuts to Eric’s point of view, and we see the servant is sitting in front of a mirror. It’s a brief moment, but it’s unsettling.
The problem is those moments are far and few in between. The set design is almost impossible to see as the movie seems lit by a flashlight even at the best of times. Maybe it was the projection at my screening, but I found Winchester dimly lit to a startling degree. Even scenes that took place outside seemed oddly underlit.
I admired the political spine of Winchester. The idea of the wife of an inventor of a gun is haunted by the victims killed by said gun is a timely one. It’s the beginning of February, and we’ve had 12 mass shootings this year already. The Spierig brothers are Australian, as is this production, and the staunch anti-gun slant is palpable. At least it is until the solution to getting rid of the ghost is by shooting it with one of the cursed guns.
Winchester has moments of brilliance shrouded in a pall of pedestrian visuals. A bore to sit through, its stupidity isn’t helped by its lack of self-awareness. A movie where a hero has to save the day by shooting a vengeful ghost with a magic bullet should be more fun. Instead, it’s just Winchester.