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Helen MIrren
Helen Mirren
CBS Films
 99 Minutes
Directed byThe Spierig Brothers
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke 

There’s a story hiding inside the Winchester House in San Jose, CA, a monstrous architectural oddity built over a century ago to cater to the whims of a very wealthy woman who was convinced that the house was a conduit for the spirits of the dead. In fact, there’s probably a whole bunch of stories revolving around the mansion and its highly eccentric owner, Sarah Winchester, widow of the head of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Unfortunately, Winchester, despite the presence of the wondrous Helen Mirren in the lead role, doesn’t tell any of those stories, but, instead, bores viewers with an all-too-familiar tale of ghosts and ghostly possession, so much so that I was almost hoping the exorcist from Insidious would show up to save the day and end the film.


Actually, the backstory of Winchester does a good job of staying close to the house’s actual history (although, to be fair, so many legends have sprung up about Sarah Winchester and the house over the years that it’s difficult to figure out exactly what did happen there). The year is 1906, not coincidentally the year of the San Francisco Earthquake (less than 50 miles away), and the executives at the Winchester Company are concerned about the sanity of their majority stockholder. So, with Sarah’s consent, they hire Dr. Eric Prince (Jason Clarke), a respected psychologist, to examine Sarah and determine whether she is mentally sound. Prince’s arrival is met with disdain by Sarah’s niece, Marian (Sarah Snook), who, along with her son Henry, also lives in the mansion.


Prince does not begin his examination with a clean slate. The company representative has made it clear to him what conclusions the company expects from him, in exchange for a lot of money that will help square the doctor’s considerable debts. Further, Prince has some demons of his own in the form of inordinate grief over the suicide (by gunshot) of his wife, and he has taken to self-medication with copious amounts of laudanum.


At first, Prince is inclined to believe that Sarah is nuts, based on her claims that the house is possessed by spirits of those who have died by gunfire, but he begins to change his mind when he starts seeing those same ghosts himself, including one who at first appears to be a servant who waits on him. Then, when young Henry is possessed and turns homicidal, Prince drops his skepticism and starts to work with Sarah to rid the mansion of the presence of the most malevolent of the spirits, the ghost of a Confederate ex-soldier who shot up the Winchester offices years earlier in revenge for the deaths of his brothers. This soldier is responsible for possessing Henry and most of the other bad things that are happening, and Prince has to find a way to get rid of him.


Essentially, brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, who co-wrote and directed Winchester, have taken the outline of actual events, including the great earthquake, which trapped the actual Sarah in the house for hours and unleashes the grand finale mayhem here, and appended to this history virtually every ghost and haunted house cliché in the book. One major twist turns out to be quite effective when revealed about halfway through the film. The other major twist, that one of the ghosts haunting the Winchester House is that of Prince’s dead wife, instead borders on silliness. And the method by which Prince might be able to rid the house of the vengeful ghost goes beyond silliness to complete preposterousness.


By turning Winchester into a confusing, illogical mash-up of countless other ghost movies, the Spierigs have managed to squander both a unique setting and the presence of one the world’s finest actresses. I’m not sure what possessed Helen Mirren to take this role, other than, perhaps, a desire to cross making a bad horror movie off her bucket list, but she definitely elevates this material, giving it a dignity it really doesn’t deserve. She is also helped out by a script that spares her most of the ghostly encounters due to the physicality of those scenes; instead, a distinctly uncomfortable-looking Jaspm Clarke gamely works his way through some truly ridiculous moments. While neither Mirren nor Clarke will be remembered at Oscar time next year for their work in Winchester, Mirren at least gives the type of professional performance audiences are used to. Clarke, who has far more duds on his resume, unfortunately lowers himself to the level of the script at inopportune moments.


The best thing that Winchester has going for it is the Winchester House itself, and the Spierigs wisely take advantage of the building’s bizarre layout. Although filmed in Australia with a primarily Australian cast (including Clarke and Sarah Snook), the brothers include exterior shots, usually aerial ones, whenever they can, and the interior sets mimic the house’s odd construction whenever possible. So, characters look through doors and windows that double back onto corridors in most eerily disconcerting ways (something that works better when seen than in any description I could give), and going up a flight of stairs can turn into a dead-end ambush at any time. Using such a layout, even the most timeworn of jump scares can often be effective, and a couple of moments really work well, albeit briefly. Unfortunately, building a horror movie exclusively on jump scares is the cinematic equivalent of the Winchester House, not a formula for success.


Winchester is far from the worst horror movie ever made, and it is certainly better than the year’s other entry in the horror sweepstakes, the aforementioned Insidious. But unlike much of the other horror dreck out there, Winchester squanders a golden opportunity. The Spierigs had a never-before-seen, genuine horror star on their hands in the Winchester House and managed to turn in into something that never rises above mediocrity. Along the way, they allowed one of the best actresses of our time to become little more than a victim in need of saving. If there is any justice in this world, someday, the Spierigs will be haunted by the thought of what they did to the Winchester House.

In this scene, Helen Mirren explains to Jason Clarke why she built her house.

Read other reviews of Winchester: 

Winchester (2018) on IMDb