The Spierig brothers (Michael and Peter) have consistently been two of the most exciting directors of genre cinema since their remarkably strong shoe-string budget debut, Undead, in 2003. Since then, they’ve brought us a world overrun with vampires in the criminally underrated Daybreakers, time-travel twists and turns in Predestination, and the long-awaited reboot of the Saw franchise with last year’s Jigsaw. Winchester is their latest project: a film based on the real-life story of Sarah Winchester, heiress of William Winchester who, at one point, held a 50% stake in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, making her one of the wealthiest women in the world at the time.
Sarah Winchester is best known for building the infamous Winchester Mystery House, a mansion and her personal residence in California that began construction in 1884 and continued, 24 hours a day and without interruption, until her death in 1922. It’s alleged that Sarah – benefactor of what could easily be deemed blood money due to the countless people killed by Winchester rifles – was wracked with guilt and became convinced that she was being haunted by the many victims of the firearms.
Supposedly, among her beliefs was the idea that the ghosts needed a place of residence and more space was constantly needed for each new soul – but also, the idea that if construction should ever stop on the house, then she would die. She also took to increasingly elaborate and nonsensical plans for rooms and extensions to the building (such as literal corridor mazes or staircases to nowhere) that were allegedly designed to confuse any haunting spirits and allow her to slip away from them if ever necessary. It’s a fascinating tale that’s so ripe for the horror movie picking that it’s genuinely baffling that it’s taken over 100 years for a film based on the story to be made.
Although there’s an obvious need to turn the story into something of a more conventional haunted house horror movie, it’s curious that the film takes the approach of casting Sarah Winchester in a supporting role, opting to follow Dr. Eric Price, a man hired by the Winchester company to stay with her and assess her mental health to ascertain whether or not she’s capable of remaining in charge of the company. The approach feels very derivative of horror ranging from The Woman in Black to Dracula, and you can’t help but wonder if positioning Sarah as the lead character would have worked better. Imagine a prestige biopic full of demons and ghosts. It’d be unique, if nothing else.
Whilst the lavish set art and design combined with sequences shot at the actual Winchester mansion, gorgeous cinematography and strong performances from Helen Mirren (as Sarah Winchester) and Sarah Snook (as her live-in relative, Marrion) do wonders to keep the film afloat, by reducing the story to being just another haunted house film built around jump-scares, the story is robbed of everything that might have made it special. Had the film been genuinely frightening, it might have succeeded in spite of this, but as talented directors as the Spierigs tend to be, it seems like jumpy horror isn’t in their wheelhouse as the film is a surprisingly flaccid affair with scares simply not landing or sometimes coming across as unintentionally comedic.
WINCHESTER / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: MICHAEL SPIERIG, PETER SPIERIG / SCREEPLAY: MICHAEL SPIERIG, PETER SPIERIG, TOM VAUGHAN / STARRING: HELEN MIRREN, JASON CLARKE, SARAH SNOOK, FINN SCICLUNA-O’PREY / EMM WISEMAN / ANGUS SAMPSON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW