Horror movies inspired by real events are ones to be taken with a grain of salt. The level of terror they can inspire comes directly from what genre of horror they are. Films that tread thriller terrain with psycho killers, detectives, and abduction cases tend to have a leg-up on other genres as we come across similar stories –though not always so extreme- in headlines. Whereas not everyone can get on board with paranormal flicks based on real reports. While movies such as The Exorcist prove that they can still make for iconic cinema, not all ghost movies make the grade.
Winchester tells the story of grieving widow Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) –whose husband invented the repeating Winchester rifle- who lives in a gargantuan mansion that is always under construction and is also seriously haunted. Sarah is convinced that the souls of all those killed by her husband’s invention gather in her home and so she is continually building rooms for them to either be locked in if they are malevolent or helped to move on if they are merely lost. Superiors at the office of the Winchester Company hire physician Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to issue a formal evaluation declaring Sarah insane and unfit to run the company, but soon after arriving at the mansion Eric begins to encounter its ghostly residents –including one particularly malevolent spirit with a powerful thirst for revenge.
Shot in Melbourne and directed by the Spierig brothers Winchester is an interesting story, but a relatively mediocre movie. It would make a very exciting gothic novel a la Horace Walpole or Anne Radcliffe as it covers all the generic tropes including an elaborate mansion with secret passages, a cursed/dysfunctional family, and of course the past forever intruding on the present. This was definitely the film’s aesthetic –which reminded me very strongly of The Woman in Black– although where it falls down in this respect is with the house itself. On the inside it’s a classic Victorian ghost story and the cinematography is pretty spot-on, but on the outside the house –and a number of its inner technologies- are more modern and clash with the vibe.
In terms of a paranormal horror flick it’s eerie, but not anything overly special or frightening. The jump scares are all strongly premeditated causing you to spend the lead up poised with your hands over your ears – and nine times out of ten they happen exactly where you think they will.
The performances are all very solid, but again nothing incredible. Helen Mirren as a grieving grand dame delivers a stylish performance and Jason Clarke does a relatively good job of playing the rational character in a house of horrors while simultaneously being haunted by ghosts of his own.
Stylistically Winchester is a fine film, but as a horror movie it’s only so-so. The jump scares do work and the possessed child –a popular genre cliché thanks to The Exorcist– is still a creepy thing to behold, but as the film treads these familiar boards it becomes too recognisible and loses that immersion you look for in a horror movie experience.