Winchester

2018 | rated PG-13 | staring Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Angus Sampson | directed by The Sprierig Brothers | 1 hr 39 mins |

Studio Pitch: The true story of Sarah Winchester and her elaborate 100-room mansion built on a fear of the ghosts of her families repeater rifle turned into a horror movie set in 1903.

Winchester marks our 2nd movie in 6 month directed by The Sprierig Brothers, who after Undead and Daybreakers, took a bite at the Saw series with last October’s pretty ok Jigsaw. Here instead of trying to cobble together the rancid pieces of that series, they have more inspired ingredients to work with. The bizarre and incredible story of Sarah Winchester’s mansion of mazes and secret passages is so classically set up for a haunted house film I’m surprised there isn’t already a 1940s version of this starring Vincent Price as the house butler.

Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren, what Helen Mirren!), heiress to the Winchester repeater rifle estate has seemingly gone mad. Convinced her house is possessed by the ghosts of those killed with her family’s rifle during the Civil War and grieving generations of loss in her family, she turns her house into a conduit for spirits. A 100 plus room gargantuan in central California under 24 hour construction on spiritualist orders from beyond realm, the house has risen the attention the rest of the Winchester estate, notably Arthur Gates (Tyler Coppin) who enlists psychologist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to stay in the home and make a (ah hem) determination about Sarah’s sanity and continued involvement in the company. Naturally, as soon as Price gets there he is immediately beset with visions of ghosts who clang around every night at the stroke of midnight.

How Helen Mirren got roped into something as seemingly beneath her as a (gasp) B-horror movie is unclear (though she is following up her role in The Fate of the Furious and Red 2 so come on), though my cynical side suspects that a lot of the reason the movie has Sarah Winchester wearing a black veil half of the time is to shoot around Mirren because the production couldn’t afford her every day. Still, she is in the film a lot and the scenes opposite Clarke are fun, with the psychologist offering questions and platitudes and Mirren showing Winchester to be sharp as a tack, able to unravel his every trick.  Price himself is grappling with issues – a drug addiction to poison, the grief of the loss of his own wife and a continued conflict of his own abilities as a doctor or a hack. Both actors, and the Sprierig’s energy, elevate the material.

While Sarah Winchester believes her family product is profiting from death and that guns are evil tools, the film also delivers a sit down conversation with her niece (Sarah Snook) who takes the opposing position and with that wraps up any debate about guns and punts it out of the film. The Sprierig’s wisely keep the politics out of their Victoria haunted house movie.

Winchester at times feels like something of a Franken-film. It juggles a lot of stuff, particularly offloading a ton of information in the third act, and it feels like the Sprierig’s are keeping a lot of plates in the air that they just barely keep from crashing together. They pull back on the reigns of the film, just as it threatens to get too messy and keep it on track. It feels many times like Winchester isn’t even trying to be a horror film. That at some stage it was a psychological drama telling the true story framed around a woman and a man who may be going mad, but Lionsgate got ahold of it and demanded the requisite jump-scares. So every night Clarke’s character wakes up, wanders around the house and sees visions of horrific demons jumping out of cracks. Given that they are credited with the re-shoots, those jump scares may have come from The Sprierig brothers themselves. Jump-scares are fine if done right and these are well executed. The Sprierig’s seem to have taken detailed notes from James Wan’s horror films and attempt to recreate his methodically build, mis-directing horror set pieces for themselves. They just don’t match the rest of the film, which isn’t tuned for horror.

Jump-scares may not be scary, but they can be fun and that’s Winchester – a fun if straight-forward  haunted house ride. Making a smart B-movie choice, the story doesn’t try to cover the history of the house and every being in it, but focuses down to a single mystery surrounding one particular ghost. I also loved that the movie built a set of strict rules for the ghost lore inside it’s house and plays them off nicely. The movie builds to a perfectly ridiculous and raucous finale and guides Mirren’s, Snook’s and Clarke’s stories through the chaos each to satisfying ends. A surprising amount of depth depth given to Clarke’s story. I expected little more than the usual drugged-up detective role and the way it wraps into the main story works in a genuine way.

No, Winchester is not the next Conjuring or a nerve-shredding work of terror, but it is an interesting and well-put together film, that pulls off a few slight of hand surprises and indulges so lovingly in it’s B-movie qualities (as the Sprierig’s tend to do) that it rises out of them and becomes genuinely fun.

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