Winchester and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate and CBS Films
Directed by Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig
SERIOUSLY!? We managed to go through ALL of January without a single notable horror movie!? Okay, I mean there was that INSIDIOUS movie but that one doesn’t count because… I didn’t see the other films. MY POINT IS that it’s been PRETTY light so far for a month known almost EXCLUSIVELY for terrible horror films, and for me this is the first one of the new year so I’m STILL gonna consider it a January horror film! Besides, that’s not even a particularly hard rule of thumb considering last year’s worst horror abomination Rings didn’t make it out the gate until the first week of February either. Will this be another entry in the never ending list of terrible first of the year horror movies, or are the people behind this just too darn talented to make the same mistakes that everyone else did? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the story of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) who is the widow of William Winchester; the man who started the Winchester Repeating Arms company and got SUPER rich doing so. Now she has all this money, but she’s been using it to build and rebuild and rebuild and add on and then do some MORE rebuilding on here house. Why is she doing this? Well she believes that the ghosts of the victims of Winchester rifles, instead of haunting say… their murderers, are haunting her house and I guess the multiple rooms and weird architecture confuses them or something. Anyway, Dr. Price (Jason Clarke) has been sent by the Winchester Repeating Arms company to assess the mental fitness of Sarah in an attempt to oust her from the company, but he’s not interested in being their lap dog and seems to genuinely want to help her; not like he’d get away with being so duplicitous what with her niece Marion (Sarah Snook) watching his every move. Of course, things start to get strange almost immediately as Eric starts to see creepy things of his own and Marian’s son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) is “sleepwalking” all over the place. Is Miss Winchester correct in believing that there are ghosts in her house and that they’re after her for what her company’s weapons did to them? Does Dr. Price have a much deeper connection to this place than either he or Sarah initially thought? Why does it matter if the house is a confusing maze of dead ends and random staircases!? GHOSTS ARE NON-CORPOREAL!!
Look, I tried, alright? I’m not about to say that I was genuinely HOPEFUL going into this as Bad January (and sometimes February) Horror Movies have become a total cliché, but it DID have some things going for it! You’ve got the directors behind the rather competent Jigsaw making this, they managed to cast Helen Mirren as the star of the damn thing, and it makes a pretty solid first impression all things considered! Well… at least as far as ghost movies go, but we’ll get to THAT soon enough. Needless to say that whatever trepidation I had were slowly evaporating as this movie went along through its opening moments, and yet it just can’t manage to take full advantage of the resources it had. To be sure, this is MUCH better than a lot of other horror films that were released around this time of year like Rings, The Bye Bye Man, and The Forest, but this fails to equal the sum of its parts with such a meandering story line, ridiculous scares, and a bad guy about as threatening as a ham sandwich with spicy mustard. Maybe there’s a market out there for solidly crafted yet unbearably tepid horror films, but that doesn’t mean movies like this will get a pass from me!
I’ve made it clear in the past that Ghost Movies frustrate me to no end and so any film that wants to do that kind of story has an uphill battle to fight right off the bat. Well, maybe that’s a bit too lenient as there’s really no reason a ghost movie HAS to have the same flaws in every last one of them; the issue it that the premise makes it so easy to indulge in the clichés and tropes that have never worked for me. The problem I have with these kind of films can be boiled down to two infuriatingly predictable issues; there’s no established ground rules for what the ghosts can or cannot do, and the actions they take don’t fit with their supposed motivations. In this movie, the ghost can do whatever it wants and goes about it in a way that is completely unfathomable to anyone who can even discern what the hell their plan is in the first place. Can it possess someone? Sure! Take physical form? Why not!? Cause a freaking earthquake!? ALL within the realm of possibility! Heck, I’m sure this dude can even juggle chainsaws while reciting War and Piece from cover to cover! At no point did I have ANY clue what this ghost was capable of or how any of his actions served a greater goal. He possesses a kid in one scene to have him walk off a roof, but then in another scene he possesses him to grab a gun and try to shoot someone. WELL WHICH IS IT!? DOES THE GHOST WANT THIS KID DEAD, OR DOES HE WANT HIM TO KILL SOMEONE!? Even if it’s the latter, we see later on that this ghost is MORE than capable of killing minor characters with his own power, so why didn’t he do any of THAT towards his ACTUAL target? These are the questions that I ask in pretty much ANY ghost movie and this is no exception. Ouija: Origin of Evil was smart enough to give us at least a modest explanation of why the ghosts couldn’t just ragdoll everyone from the very beginning, and they even gave them a reason to PRETEND to be benevolent which gave them much more personality and depth than anything you’ll find in this. I get that the ghost is motivated by REVENGE which should make it THAT much easier to make them an engrossing and three dimensional monster, but their actions are totally asinine and it sucked all the menace out of the movie whenever we focused on them.
So ASIDE from the ghost being another crappy and poorly thought out plot contrivance, how is the REST of the movie? Eh… it’s fine. The living characters aren’t that much more interesting than the dead ones, but Helen Mirren rarely gives a bad performance and she’s certainly the highlight here. Sadly I can’t say the same thing for Jason Clarke who’s OKAY in his role, but the movie gives him so little to work with and he just seems incapable of imbuing his role with much pathos or gravitas outside of what’s written on the page. The film contrives for him to just skulk around the house at night (YOU WERE INVITED THERE, WHY ARE YOU AVOIDING PEOPLE!?) and he looks just as confused about doing it as I was while watching it. At the very least, The Spierig Brothers know how to direct a film as they manage to get in some creative scares and put their own spin on the classic ghost clichés. There’s one jump scare in particular that ingeniously takes advantage of the negative space in a way that legitimately catches you off guard, and sure there are some EXTREMELY corny ones like a finger coming out of a rather small hole (how tiny is this ghost’s hands!?) and it honestly doesn’t have as much going for it as say Annabelle: Creation did, but I’m still impressed with what these two have to offer and I hope that they can land a much better project after this.
Now of course, there’s the very awkward elephant in the room which is ALL the gun stuff in here. Now don’t get me wrong; I LOVE me some gun violence in movies! Lethal Weapon, Shoot ‘Em Up, The Raid, John Wick, when done right shoot outs can be just as artistically fulfilling as anything else you can put on screen. Still, those movies are usually not waving the manufacturer’s logo in your face and showing off all their classic models. Now to be fair, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company seems to be a shell of its former self (similar to what Atari is in the game industry) and the movie TRIES to make a rather blunt anti-gun message… but the ending of the movie has a good guy with a gun shooting a bad guy with a gun, so… yeah. I mean that’s something that happens in movies ALL THE TIME, but when you put a manufacture’s name front and center it skews a bit too real for my taste and it’s honestly just ridiculous how that scene plays out in the movie. It’s really more of a distraction than anything else as they even contrive the film to have a freaking showroom for a bunch of weapons, but I can see that alone being enough to keep some people away from the theaters and I honestly couldn’t blame them.
It’s not the worst movie I’ve seen so far this year which is quite an improvement over early horror films of years past, but it’s not all that good either which is a shame because Helen Mirren is so good in it and they had a set of really talented directors behind the camera. With so much to work with, I couldn’t help but be utterly disappointed that it was all for yet another painfully dull and woefully cliché spook house film that never sets itself apart from its mediocre peers; at least on the scripting level. This is absolutely not worth watching in the theaters and I’d honestly be hard pressed to recommend seeing it when it gets a home release. MAYBE if you’re like me and think these two guys are gonna be a big deal pretty soon and want a working knowledge of their full filmography when that happens… well, good luck to you buddy. I’ll just forget about this before long which I GUESS is better than outright hating it, but that’s still a pretty low place to set the bar.