Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), owner of the Winchester repeating rifle company, lives in an elaborate, labyrinthine mansion of an estate. “There are almost 100 rooms in the house,” Sarah Snook’s character says early in the film. “It is easy to get lost.”
She says this to doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who is called on to judge the state of Sarah Winchester’s mental health. This is due to concern that other Winchester stock holders have over Sarah’s obsession with the idea that her house is haunted by the ghosts of those killed by her rifles.
Winchester locks these spirits inside rooms in her house, rooms that are constantly being built and rebuilt by construction workers that work around the clock. One of these spirits, however, threatens to destroy Winchester’s home and livelihood. For some reason, Price is the key to stopping it.
Winchester is a brutally tedious film. It meanders around the same three or four corridors of this massive mansion night in and night out, as if it is scary to simply be in the house. It is not.
The set design of the house is genuinely the only thing of note in the entire film. These three or four corridors and the handful of rooms that we are shown inside the Winchester estate are designed and decorated admirably for a film that more often than not bathes these sets in darkness.
Everything else about Winchester is acceptable, to put it generously.
Clarke acts competently in spite of a lousy script and a character whose personality is most on par with an unsalted wet noodle. And it is hard to tell exactly what Helen Mirren is doing in this movie, but she is certainly not working at her usual high caliber. Worse than that, the film seems to make the mistake of thinking that merely having Mirren in the cast grants it a level of esteem fit for a prestige horror picture.
Which it is not.
No, Winchester uses every half-baked trick in the horror book—the hand-grab false scare, the mirror scare, the under-the-bed scare, the possessed child trope, a modulated possessed voice a la The Exorcist, etc. Nothing about the scares lend themselves to atmosphere nor tone, but instead they are indicative of laziness and rote filmmaking.
Winchester is directed by Michael and Peter Spierig. Their film Predestination is quite good—although, that film’s source material is its most intriguing feature. Their last film, Jigsaw, is more in-line with what Winchester is. Both films are generic to a fault. In the literal sense, that is. Jigsaw is a re-hash of torture porn genre elements that are smashed together into something that can be labeled as a film.
Winchester is a re-hash of haunting and possession tropes that are smashed together into something that can be marketed as a film because Helen Mirren is in it.
The story that can be parsed from this conglomeration of tropes is not even worth a cursory glance. Restless spirits want vengeance for some unimportant reason, so they terrorize characters that are vaguely related to that reason who have no discernible characteristics whatsoever. Price is addicted to laudanum. That’s his one character trait, and even that is abandoned midway through the film.
Winchester is a lost cause of a movie. There’s a shot or two to like as characters wind around corridors, sure, but those get repetitive enough by the film’s midpoint that the goodwill from them is lost. And that this repetition merely lends itself to a dismally boring climax that plods along far beyond whatever purpose it intends to serve makes the whole thing feel like a slap in the face.