Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The Winchester Mystery House – located in beautiful San Jose, California – is well known to many as a tourist trap. It’s billed as “the most haunted house” ever to exist. There’s something to be said for the Victorian mansion’s spooky history, crazy layout, and unnerving atmosphere. It’s just too bad directors Michael and Peter Spierig weren’t able to find the right words with WINCHESTER. What should have been a fun, entertaining jaunt winds up being a maddening, frightful bore.
The board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company are convinced that their boss, heiress Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), has gone mad. The widow, who is no stranger to grief, has taken to building all day and night – room after room, story after story, onto the original home as dictated by the spirits of those violently killed by her family’s rifles. Yes, the surprising hidden message (which plays out like a lecture) is on the perils of gun ownership. Ho boy. Anyways, she requests Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to evaluate her sanity, calling upon him specifically for reasons you learn in one of the most lackluster reveals in cinema. Sarah invites him to stay with her in the allegedly haunted house, along with her niece Marion (Sarah Snook) and Marion’s young son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). It’s not long until a malevolent presence makes itself known – one Sarah says is the strongest she’s ever encountered.
The Spierig Brothers, working from their re-write of Tom Vaughan’s script, give us a tired, rote story of a male protagonist whose scientific beliefs are put to the test, when the story we should’ve seen was an empowering one solely about Sarah Winchester’s plight. She’s certainly the more interesting emotional through line to the story, yet they treat her character as almost an afterthought. They’re more concerned about how she services the male arc. While there is a good message that letting go of grief can ultimately save us, it rings faint in the audience’s ears.
There’s never a sense of foreboding, dread, or horror. We never truly feel the weight of Mrs. Winchester’s grief or anguish. She just tells us about it – frequently. Dramatic sequences are repeated one after another, leading to a gaping lull in narrative momentum in the middle of the film. Dr. Price talks to Sarah about his past, then minutes later has that same talk with Marion. The filmmakers don’t even bother to make a stronger connection between all three of these characters’ shared widow status. Character motivations are flimsy at best. Plus, there are a few persistent logic questions that arise when the script boxes itself into a corner: Why does Henry continue to stay in the house? Why would Sarah, a staunch anti-gun advocate, ever allow a gun room even if the spirits commanded her to build one?
With the exception of one halfway-decent fright near the end of the second act, the film deals in expected cheap jump scares. The filmmakers repeat the same formula for the frights: The sound drops out, the camera pans, and wham! There’s a ghost. The cabinet scare is also recycled twice – reducing it to a boy crying “wolf.” Objects darting out from nowhere also don’t add to the terror. Even the potential of a “he’s been dead for twenty years” reveal sadly goes untapped, when this should’ve been played to the hilt.
WINCHESTER is a big misfire.
WINCHESTER is now playing.