The real life figure of Sarah Winchester and her bizarre, massive estate is fascinating. Heiress to a gun company fortune, she was also credited by many to have come up with various inventions that are still used in households today. These include sinks with built-in soap holders and tilting shower heads. The new film Winchester doesn’t take an interest in household improvements, choosing instead to focus on the woman’s most peculiar eccentricities; the fact she believed she was cursed by the ghosts of those killed by her company’s rifles and the endless construction of her estate, with trap doors and dead ends designed to confuse vengeful spirits.
As such, the narrative begins in 1906 with therapist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) called to the San Jose home of the recluse Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Hired by executives at the Winchester Rifle Co., he’s told to give them an assessment of the mental state of the widow of the gun manufacturer. Of course, they want her to be declared insane in order to take control of the business. However, Price quickly begins to witness supernatural events and begins to wonder if he’s losing his mind… or if the ghost stories surrounding the mansion might actually be true.
Of course, this is a low-budget horror flick, so it’s quickly established that the latter is occurring. It comes in the form of a vengeful spirit out to torment not only Winchester herself, but her adult niece (Sarah Snook) and great-nephew Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). Price, suffering from a personal tragedy of his own, decides to further investigate the strange sights and visions. It results in plenty of attempts at jump scares, in which servants walk out from behind corners and strange items like skates roll ominously across frame.
Unfortunately, very few of these supposed shocks actually hit the mark. The music stings are there and there are plenty of opportunities to jolt viewers, but the timing is off. In fact, there’s only one real jump that comes close to startling viewers. Most of the gags are telegraphed and don’t make any kind of startling impact. In fact, the majority of viewers will simply find themselves shrugging.
The performers are exceptional talents, but they aren’t given much in the way of convincing dialogue either. There’s a lot of exposition and as great as these actors are, they’re let down with some cornball, on-the-nose ruminations about loss, grief and moving on in life. All the actors can do is deliver the material in a muted and low-key manner. That keeps it from coming across as laughable, but it doesn’t make for a chilling atmosphere. In fact, nothing life-threatening really occurs until the final act, when the villain is revealed and attempts to officially wipe out members of the family.
Perhaps the lack of tension is also a result of the highly populated homestead. The characters are constantly lurking the hallways with construction workers hammering through the night (it’s established that they are contracted to work 24-hours a day). This makes Price’s attempts to sneak around the home and spy on Winchester seem all the more ridiculous. These characters don’t ever seem as thought they’re isolated or cut-off, lessening the threat. The script also wants to tie the fantastic goings on with actual events of the era (including the San Francisco Earthquake), but these bits don’t feel well integrated. In fact, during the devastating quake, not a single member of the staff even appears to help out.
One thing that is impressive is the production design. This reviewer assumes that the interiors of the estate were recreated on various sound stages. As someone who has visited the actual Winchester home, they look remarkably authentic and convincing. Many of the sights will be familiar to anyone who has toured the property. And when the action finally does arrive during the finale, the filmmakers have a few visual tricks up their sleeves and there are a couple of creative shots (including one with a room full of rifles floating and threatening the leads).
Sadly, despite the potential for some B-movie thrills, the results here are curiously flat and lifeless. A photograph of the real life Sarah Winchester (one of only two in existence) appears just before the credits… and the image is far eerier and more intriguing than anything in the film itself. In the end, Winchester completely wastes a wonderful and talented cast and only fires blanks.