A way that I evaluate if a horror film has really worked in scaring me is to think about what I felt like after the film ended. Walking away from the cinema after seeing a horror film, I look at my behaviour for the rest of the day and ask, am I cautious? Am I more suspecting of room, corridors and dim lights? In other words, am I a different person from when I walked into the cinema? I was asking myself the same questions as I always do the moment I left the screening of Winchester, and you know what, I am, just not in the way I was hoping for. Instead of feeling overly cautious, I felt overly outraged but was I can only describe as a walk in/walk out horror film that has no forceful impact despite of how loud it speaks.
But that is all to come later. As always, I like to start with the positives of a film so that you can quickly read the things worth seeing. The first of which being the film’s star attraction Helen Mirren, who plays the widow and heiress Sarah Winchester, giving it her all. It is a good thing when a films selling point can live up to its expectations and settled me in for a performance that I already expected to be the highlight of the film. Helen Mirren provides a clarity into her characters grief and deep remorse of her families own success as she clings on to any way dealing with the loss of her husband.
The Winchester Mansion is also a very interesting building. Apparently, some of the interior shots were filmed in a studio environment, the clues are there but for most of the film, the setting works for potential suspense. If anything, I would have liked to see the house used to its full advantage. We are told and shown that construction is constant in the mansion, this is a great setup for playing with an environment. Imagine rooms appearing where they weren’t before, corridors that looped provided a trapped environment for the characters. The film could have utilised its resources to make the house a character of its own. while this is disappointing, I am kind of satisfied with what they’ve done to make it scary.
But these positives cannot make up the fact that Winchester, much like Sarah’s sanity, is fragile at its core. The fragility comes in the form of taking an interesting concept and unintentionally highlighting the flaws of its supposedly haunted nature. We are told that Sarah Winchester can hear noises and voices at night from the ghosts of people who were shot by the Winchester rifle, but as previously mentioned, construction is a 24/7 thing and not only that, we are introduced to the detail of pipes being built into the house so that people can communicate in different rooms. Oh yeah, I wonder where the noises and voices come from. In the effort to tell this true story, it has botched it to the point where I can’t believe in the tales anymore.
While Helen Mirren’s character has some degree of impressiveness, the same cannot be said for the character of Eric Price (Jason Clark) who is completely bland in this film. In a story where not a whole lot happens, I can’t connect with this character. There are hints of depth as we learn about his wife’s death, but there isn’t much to make the audience like him, no effort is put into his development that make the audience feel invested in him.
The actual scares of the film are you standard, overdone and terribly clichéd jump scares. The way the film sets these scares up is so uninspiring that it gets annoying after a while. The build up to the scare is done very quickly and because the setup is so familiar, it’s becomes too predictable but of course we react anyway because it the cheapest way of getting a jump from the audience. The greatest jump scares in history have a few connecting factors, they’re unexpected, they make sense thanks to the information the film provides, and the buildup is much longer, some films even take up half the films run time to get to (e.g. Friday the 13th). Winchester fails at all three and results in a scare that once happened I felt disappointed in myself and down.
Winchester at the end of the day is a horror film that will come and go. Directors Michael and Peter Spierig have shown to be creative people with potential as unique horror directors, so what was the reason that resulted in a film that follow the same tired path we’ve seen a hundred times already? But I will say this. There are going to be people who this film appeals to and I’m not trying to insult their taste in horror, if you like the clichéd horror format, I can’t stop you from seeing Winchester. If you’re wanting to see this because you’re a fan of Helen Mirren, again, I won’t stop you. Just understand that the chances are the rush we get from horror films won’t stick around for long.