Directed by: Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
Premise: The widowed heiress of the Winchester firearm company (Helen Mirren) claims to be haunted by the souls of people killed by the Winchester rifle. At the behest of the company’s stake holders, a psychologist (Jason Clarke) evaluates her mental fitness.
What Works: Winchester is a PG-13 horror picture and it has a few good scares that are appropriate for its intended audience. The movie relies on jump scares and it executes them well; even seasoned horror fans will be jolted by Winchester’s most effective moments. The movie is also well photographed. Much of the story takes place in the dark hallways of the Winchester mansion and the filmmakers light the scenery to create a spooky mood while maintaining the intelligibility of the action.
What Doesn’t: Many of the scares in Winchester are red herrings. In several scenes a door opens suddenly with an accompanying stinger that jolts the audience. It is fun at first but the gag has diminishing returns as the filmmakers come back to it again and again and again. Winchester suffers from too much exposition. There are a lot of dialogue-heavy scenes in which the characters talk about the Winchester family curse. This film supposes that the founders of the Winchester rifle company are haunted by the victims of their products. But Winchester had a host of executives and stake holders so vengeful spirits singling out this particular woman and her family seems a bit arbitrary. That reveals Winchester’s broader flaw as a paranormal story. The movie lacks a basic metaphysical logic; virtually all stories about the supernatural follow a magic system or some kind of an internal logic by which the specters can be expelled. Winchester doesn’t have that. The haunting of the mansion goes from bad to worse but there is no logic to the film’s solution and the haunting is brought to an end through arbitrary action. The moviemakers also fail to exploit the constant construction of the mansion; Sarah Winchester had the home under constant revision and expansion, some of it illogical, which created a labyrinth within the house. Winchester does not capitalize on this feature in a way that enhances the mood or the scares. For that matter, the movie doesn’t entertain any ambiguity about the haunting. There is a possibility that this is all in Sarah Winchester’s head and a manifestation of her grief and guilt. But the filmmakers dismiss that early on to get into a routine haunting story. In addition to being a clichéd haunted house flick, Winchester’s political agenda is also halfhearted; in the era of mass shootings this story comes across as overtly political but the filmmakers have nothing interesting to say. Winchester comes across as a poorly thought out parable and whatever it’s trying to say about the repercussions of gun violence and corporate responsibility falls flat.
Bottom Line: Winchester is a mediocre haunted house movie. It ought to frighten the PG-13 audience but it doesn’t offer much beyond its immediate scares. Winchester fails to realize the potential of its premise and the political point is shallow and obvious.
Episode: #685 (February 11, 2018)