Helen Mirren’s ghost film delivers forgettable scares

Photo courtesy of See Li, Wikipedia

The fabled Winchester Mystery House has been the focus of numerous documentary programs over the span of decades due to its maze-like corridors, trap doors leading to two-story drops and claims of mass hauntings throughout the estate. These claims have cemented the house into the depths of paranormal legend. The house seems like the ideal setting for a terrifying haunted house story yet the movie ends up being another confusingly bland horror movie.

Set in San Jose, California, in 1906, “Winchester” tells the story of Sarah Winchester, played by Helen Mirren, who is the widow of an arms manufacturer who ran the Winchester Repeating Arms Factory until his untimely death. Winchester believes the souls of all those who died by the hand of Winchester rifles haunt the halls of her family house.

She cites the deaths of her husband and infant daughter as evidence of the Winchester Curse, which dictates that all Winchesters will face tragic deaths for their role in creating such deadly weapons. She compulsively constructs, demolishes and rebuilds rooms within the house to please the trapped spirits.

Doctor Eric Price, played by Jason Clarke, is bribed by the Winchester Company into declaring Winchester mentally unfit so that the factory can seize her power as head of the company. Price is a strong believer in hard science and, from stories alone, believes her to be unstable.

However, upon visiting the mansion and speaking with Winchester’s niece Marian Marriot, played by Sarah Snook and great nephew Henry, played by Finn Scicluna-O'Prey, he slowly begins to realize his own strange connection to the house. This leads him to question whether Winchester is right in believing in spirits or if he himself is falling into the delusion.

The film presents itself as more of a thrilling mystery period piece in the initial scenes with minimal scares and smooth cinematography. The period attire, set design and lighting of the house are magnificent, bringing the audience effortlessly into the eerie setting. These three elements, along with the Spierig Brothers’ beautiful direction, create a realistic setting, which in turn, makes the characters more realistic as well.

Realism is also added through the length of time spent on characterizing both Winchester and Price. Their reserved discussions of conflicting views make this feel like a docudrama of Winchester’s life, which is far more emotionally upsetting than horrifying. In fact, creating such a fictionalized look into Winchester’s mind would have been far more unsettling than the rest of the film that followed.

Despite the frightening implications of a setting as disorienting as the Winchester Mystery House, the house itself takes a backseat to tedious jump scares and a generic haunted house plotline. Most of the house’s 100-plus rooms remain unseen and therefore, the multitude of intricate traps within the home are hardly ever used. The jarring, repetitive jumpscare music is always present during the film’s predictable and unconnected scares.

There is only one scare that connects directly to the plot, and sure enough this works extremely well. Most other tense scenes involve computer-generated imagery (CGI) ghouls that confuse rather than scare, given their lack of explanation. These spirits disappear far too quickly to be seen in detail and thus, their shaky images are more blurry than scary.

In the end, the story is mostly forgettable outside of two great performances from Snook and Mirren. Snook captures the frantic mother defending her child perfectly and is the emotional center of many tense scenes without coming off as weak or generic. Mirren’s performance is extremely layered as she has moments of great distress followed by moments of valiant dedication to preserving her home. She is slightly uncertain of her ability to maintain the house, which only gives her more depth and drive to action.

“Winchester” is a good choice for viewers looking for a spooky movie to throw on when entertaining friends. Similarly, it can be enjoyed simply for its visual pleasure outside of the silly scares. However, if viewers are at all interested in the Winchester Mystery House’s construction and evolving design, they are better off watching a documentary like 1963’s “Mrs. Winchester’s House” or other Winchester documentary pieces. Even diehard Helen Mirren fans should feel no shame in taking a pass on “Winchester."