Critics: 10% Audience: 39% IMDb: 5.3
Winchester details the story of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company following the death of her husband. Having also lost her daughter as an infant, she locks herself up in her San Jose mansion, a labyrinthian piece of architecture where the construction never ceases to end, progressing day and night at the behest of the Lady Winchester.
Presuming that insanity has claimed the lady’s mind, the board of the arms company requests Eric Prince (Jason Clarke), a doctor, to conduct a psychiatric evaluation of her to force the widow out of the company. Eric, waist-deep in drugs and escorts, realizes that his life itself is falling apart at the seams because of debt and a personal tragedy, a tragedy that is revealed slowly over the course of the movie. Without much resistance, he accepts the board’s offer. To his surprise, he finds out that Lady Winchester herself insisted on him conducting her evaluation.
Eric arrives at the mansion greeted by Lady Winchester’s niece, Marion (Sarah Snook), herself a widow and recent tenant of the Winchester mansion along with her son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). Much of what happens next convinces Eric that the house and the residents within it are more than a little bit off-kilter, most notably little Henry. Whether the sights he witnesses are a figment of his imagination spurred by his drug abuse or actual elements of the supernatural is a question that continues to play out in his mind. His evaluation of Lady Winchester doesn’t go any better, as she believes her family is haunted by the souls of people killed by the Winchester rifle, the mainstay of the company she inherited. Little by little, Eric grows to realize Lady Winchester’s belief in the supernatural and the constant renovations to her mansion are closely connected, laying out a complicated affair between those of our world and some other.
Off the bat, the premise of Winchester must be lauded for its originality, even though most of it is based on true accounts or hearsay about the titular character and her home. To be concise, Sarah Winchester’s beliefs and how those tie into her San Jose mansion are completely loony. The first act does draw plenty of intrigue and curiosity on the part of the audience, but the film certainly could have leaned into its bizarre premise and lead character more often.
Some movies tend to use the lead character as a lens or perspective into the soul of another. One such example is V for Vendetta, where Natalie Portman’s Evey is the window into Hugo Weaving’s V. Here, the angle seemed to be Eric Prince peering into the confounding mess that is Sarah Winchester. But as the movie adds minutes, the film becomes more about Eric and less about Sarah Winchester, and in the process, she becomes quite drab, especially once the mystery and supernatural aura of the film are explained away.
This is a disappointment, but the movie decides to exploit and showcase Eric’s personal tragedy and how it factors into the infamous San Jose mansion. It was a different path to take but it’s rewarding in its own way. The unraveling of the mansion’s history and that of Eric’s past trauma seem to be moving in parallel tracks until they don’t. At the point at which they merge, a certain sense of poignancy is definitely felt, but it’s dulled by the heavy-handed exposition laid throughout. That, coupled with the overly apparent trail of breadcrumbs makes this story a little less thrilling and mysterious.
Moving on to the horror thrill ride, the film does utilize jump scares rather effectively early on with abundance, and after a certain stage, they reach a point of diminishing returns. There’s only so much camera work that can be done before the viewer realizes the next scare is right around the corner with a quick pan or tilt.
As to the actors, Helen Mirren is quite underutilized as the leading lady of the film, leaving Jason Clarke to do most of the heavy lifting. He does as much as the story and script allow him, as do Snook and Scicluna-O’Prey. They all assemble in the end to combat the big bad villain, who emerges in the final act quite brilliantly through deception, and several sleights of hand go throw the viewer away until the finale.
As with most films that are received poorly by both critics and audiences, Winchester certainly could have delivered more, especially when it headlines an award-winning actress in the form of Helen Mirren. But the underlying mystery of the mansion and the lead characters, along with a quite devilish play at the end by the spectral antagonist makes this a decent watch. Matinee, please.
- Plenty of jump scares to jump about.
- Quite lovely seeing the dame in a horror movie, even if she doesn’t become front and center.
- The personal tragedy of the film could move some people, but not most.
- A smart reveal and turnaround in the final act of the film.
If you like our Winchester movie review, take a look at these other Horror posts on our blog.
Movie Info (From The Hollywood Reporter)
Production companies: Blacklab Entertainment, Imagination Design Works
Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Eamon Farren, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Laura Brent
Directors: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Screenwriters: Tom Vaughan, Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Producers: Tim McGahan, Brett Tomberlin
Cinematographer: Ben Nott
Editor: Matt Villa
Production designer: Matthew Putland
Music: Peter Spierig