This Ghost Story Fires Blanks
The only thing more confusing and carelessly constructed than the Winchester mansion itself, is the story that tries to explain why the house was built in such a haphazard manner in the first place. Construction began on the real-life Winchester House in 1886 and was never completed until its owner, Sarah Winchester, died in 1922. That’s nearly 40 years of tacking on quirky rooms, hidden hallways, doors that open to nowhere, and staircases that lead to dead ends.
Legend has it that the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune purposefully built the house in such a confusing manner so as to disorient the restless souls of those killed by her late husband’s rifles. While that claim makes for a great tourist attraction, and an even better premise for a horror movie, the truth is probably not as exciting. Perhaps she fancied herself quite the designer and architect, yet with no formal training in either discipline (as well as a $20 million inheritance to spend), simply incorporated the building’s quirks and intricacies inadvertently. Or, since she did not have much of the damage to the house repaired following the 1906 Earthquake, perhaps many of the flaws are simply best efforts to shore up the damage and call it a day.
I know. I know. That scenario isn’t nearly as much fun. But neither is the slapdash film called Winchester, written and directed by Australian brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, which is built around the concession that the wealthy widow was losing her mind and believed she was living in a haunted house.
In the film, the board of directors of The Winchester Repeating Arms Company hires Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a damaged widower with substance abuse problems, to visit the Winchester house on behalf of the company, and assess the mental stability of Mrs. Winchester (Helen Mirren). Seems shareholders have become as restless as the spirits strolling the house’s hallways with the reality that 51 percent of their company is held by a looney who has become obsessed with the constant 24-hour construction being done on her home.
Soon after arriving at the house and meeting Sarah Winchester’s niece Marion (Sarah Snook) and her young son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), Dr. Price begins experiencing strange occurrences that are caused either by his laudanum withdrawals or by the house itself. There’s no question that the old lady is a bit off her rocker though, as her candle-lit visage is seen slinking about the premises by night, shrouded in black. Though they never feel totally at ease with what they are asked to do, Clarke, Mirren, and Snook do their best with shallow characters that don’t seem real and are never given the opportunity to flourish.
What follows is 90 minutes of loud noises, fast cuts, loose logic, and hand-on-the-shoulder jump scares (I counted no fewer than four of them) as the house erupts into a chaotic fuss while attempting to purge itself of the wayward souls locked within its walls. None of it is particularly scary and it certainly isn’t very interesting with a mind-numbingly slow pace throughout much of its middle section meant as character exposition but that feels like padding.
Though the film has its moments with a fascinatingly spooky real-life setting and a couple of scenes that work well enough despite the film’s anemic PG-13 rating, not enough is made of the house’s bewildering layout. Its most interesting aspect is never adequately explored nor is it used to great effect. This is a ghost story about a house purposefully designed to fool, trick, and piss off ghosts. Yet, how does that work? It is never really explained. Aren’t ghosts ghosts because they can walk through walls, floors, windows, and doors? Then how is it that they can be locked inside rooms and killed with bullets? Sure, these are stupid questions to ask of a brainless horror film, but if you load your gun with a one-trick premise, you’d better make sure the bullets are real. Winchester fires blanks.
(Released by CBS Films and rated “PG-13” for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.