Director: The Spierig Brothers
Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook
Plot: Self-medicating, ex-soldier Doctor Price (Clarke) is sent to the Winchester house to see if the heiress (Mirren) is sane enough to continue owning the Winchester company, when she claims that the victims of the rifles are haunting her house.
Helen Mirren doesn’t do horror. It’s not so much arrogance on her part; there simply aren’t any roles that quite push the actress’ capabilities. After the Queen, Mirren must be eager to hunt down that next major role that tests her. Usually that isn’t found in a horror movie, so when Mirren’s name is attached to one, excitement levels understandably start rising. Perhaps that is the Winchester’s greatest flaw. With such heavy expectations on the film’s head, the likely outcome was that it would simply buckle under the pressure.
On Mirren’s part, it is easy to see what attracted her to the piece. Strip away the jump scares and eerie atmosphere and you have an intriguing period drama on your hands. Sarah Winchester is actually a real person, the wife and heiress of the Winchester empire, her late husband the man who invented the repeating rifle. The potential of dramatic depth in the part is instantly gripping. Sarah Winchester was haunted at the fact that her husband was the man who invented the era’s greatest killing machine. The movie picks up with the company investigating her claim to the fortune, as she spends the inheritance, tirelessly building a giant property. A team of workers are tasked with adding to the house 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, creating a seven-storey behemoth, hundreds of rooms making up the structure of the house. She claims she is catering for the ghosts of the victims of her rifles, helping them find some solace after their untimely end, almost as if someone took the plot of Sixth Sense and took it to the logical extreme. Mirren is game for the role, embodying this distraught figure, burdened with guilt and brimming with determination. Mirren is keen to add sharp wits to the part, bringing a sanity to a woman often billed throughout history as the ‘crazy ghost lady’. While from an outsider’s perspective, as fuels the premise of the story, she appears like a senile spinster, upon closer inspection, Mirren is simply single-minded when it comes to accomplishing her impossible task. As well as the true story, there is an interesting throwback to current affairs, which must have appealed to Mirren’s political side. With America’s growing gun violence problem, looking back at the devastation of the Winchester rifle and the psychological effects on the users long after is a meaty topic to dissect. It is almost an open letter to the White House, holding up a mirror of the mistakes humanity made in the past and pleading for change to be made, when looking at our future. It is almost a shame, when the heroes end up using the Winchester rifle to fight back against the antagonists, which pretty much shoots (pun intended), its argument in the foot.
Perhaps that dud note is a symptom of a wider issue. The meat is there to make a good film, but the Spierig brothers, best known for Jigsaw, simply aren’t up to the task of tying it all together. Mirren might have the acting talent to bring such a mysterious historical figure into the public eye, but the screenplay is constantly holding her back. Mirren struggles to make some awful lines land, putting her all into rising above the dreary dialogue. One scene sees her tell all of the ghosts to go back to their rooms, like some paranormal day-care nurse. The line may have worked in a silly horror B Movie, but in a film that is trying to be more, it just falls flat on its face. While the fact this is a horror doesn’t hurt Winchester from being a politically motivating movie (Get Out achieved so much with the genre last year), the fact it is a bad horror does. The majority of the movie is made up of shocks and false jump scares. Yes, I applaud certain movies, like the Conjuring, for using these tricks, but the difference is that the Conjuring rewrites the rule book, while films like Winchester seem to be clinging to it. Rather than original set-ups being used to spook the audience, Winchester sticks its hand into the good old-fashioned trademarks. A spooky rocking chair, a scary face in the mirror, a hand bursting through a door… It becomes tiring before the movie has even begun. Because the horror doesn’t engage, the overall message is just lost in the mess. I wouldn’t have liked to have been the person to show Helen Mirren the final edit of this film. Her horror movie ban was lifted for a pretty tepid reason. Poor.
Final Verdict: Winchester could have been the political horror of the year, but instead, it is a dull journey through the routine.