Released: 22nd February 2018 (Australia)
Seen: 24th February 2018
We’re worried about her sanity
Winchester is a film inspired by the real-life tale of Sarah Winchester (Played by Helen Mirren), an eccentric widow and heir to the Winchester fortune. She also happens to own 51% of the Winchester rifle company and because of that, she feels endless grief for the hundreds of lives lost to gun violence. As she communicates with spirits, Sarah has taken to building countless rooms for them. This has lead the board of the Winchester company to try and get her declared mentally ill, meaning they could take over the company. They enlist the help of Dr Eric Price (Played by Jason Clarke) to try and diagnose her but Dr Price might soon find that not only is Sarah Winchester completely sane, he’s there in time to help her face the most powerful spirit she’s ever seen.
What Winchester appears to be trying to do is a cautionary/horror tale involving gun violence and how its effects last long after death. That’s honestly an absolutely great idea… if they weren’t making the victims of gun violence into the villains of the movie who have to be vanquished, possibly with more gun violence. That’s what this film does, even if it’s unintentional which I’m certain that it is. Every ghost inside the house is someone who has been murdered by a Winchester rifle come to get revenge on the family who they believe is responsible for their death and we’re meant to side against the victims and with the person who still directly profits from the weapons that caused their deaths.
Maybe it doesn’t help that this movie is coming out when it finally appears as though victims of gun violence are actually being heard. I’m certain that timing helped to create this interpretation of the text but, even if the timing wasn’t absolutely awful, it doesn’t help that on top of the ghosts being victims that the haunting itself just isn’t scary. It’s a series of poorly paced jump scares with no tension built beforehand, that’s all they have. They cut away from an actor and then cut back to them, play a loud chord on a keyboard and make sure we see the ghost standing right behind the actor. Also, the ghosts look like Deadites from The Evil Dead if they were moulding, which isn’t scary.
On the orders of a grieving widow
Helen Mirren is easily the best element of this film. Every moment that she’s on screen is good. She knows how to make you care for her character, even empathise with her which is what’s desperately needed. She has to make you believe that her character isn’t just crazy, she’s actually seeing spirits and Helen pulls that off. There are several scenes where she’s communicating with ghosts where Helen is the only person on screen who is actually giving a performance. In fact, she’s the only person in the movie who is actually doing anything noteworthy. Her main co-star, Jason Clarke, barely even seems alert half the time. He may as well have been replaced by an empty chair for all the use he is. He has maybe one moment where he’s engaging, his second interview with Helen Mirren’s character, but other than that he is being outclassed every second he’s on screen.
Sarah Snook is not much better, but at least her performance is odd enough that there’s a strange charm to it. You can never really get a beat on her character, or even what her plot is meant to be. There’s an implication that it’s to be a better mother but it’s brief and barely touched on towards the end of the film as though we’re meant to care about her relationship with her son. We don’t care though, mostly because her son is not that interesting a character and honestly he’s kind of annoying. I’m sure the actor tried his best, child actors are notoriously not great and it’s unfair to judge them on the same level as the adults but that being said, this kid is irritating and serves no purpose other than to be this movie’s variation of the captured princess. He get’s possessed a few times and I had hopes they were going to do something interesting with that, turn him into Regan from The Exorcist except with a shotgun which would’ve been interesting. They actually do that exact thing with him for one scene which is easily the high point in the film, but they underuse the idea and instead rely on the deadite ghosts. What we’re left with is a slightly irritating child with the stupidest haircut and a horrible style of line delivery that makes it hard to care about him. It’s hard to care about anyone in the film, which is to its detriment.
It has found us
The real problem with this film, the thing that makes it borderline unwatchable, is the direction. I don’t know who decided to film this in such a way that it’s impossible to know where everyone is, but that was a horrible decision. While I understand that the house itself is meant to be a large maze, I do not expect to be completely lost when I’m watching a scene with two people in a room and end up having no idea where either of them is.
This happens multiple times, including during the climax of the film. The audience is meant to care about what is going on, but it’s hard to care when we don’t know because the director has decided to frame everything in such a way that it’s easy to forget who is in the room. Couple that with the abundance of horribly executed jump scares and suddenly I understand why Jigsaw was so underwhelming. These directors are not ready for a major release, they have no concept of tension building and seem to think that a loud noise and a person popping up out of nowhere is enough. It’s not, tension building is what makes this kind of film work. Go rewatch The Exorcist for a masterclass in how to build tension and dread before a supernatural jump scare. That film made a slow approach to a door terrifying because you knew that what was behind it was going to terrify you. This film barely makes a ghost with a shotgun scary, which is a skill in itself.
Winchester is a film that not only lacks the ability to understand its own subtext, it’s a film that doesn’t understand the basic idea of a horror film. It’s not scary, it’s annoying. A loud scream is not enough to provide a good scare, when you have no real tension to back that up then you’re left with nothing of value to offer except a good performance by a legendary actress and a couple of really nice sets.