winchester-rev Winchester  (2018)    Lionsgate/Horror    RT: 99 minutes    Rated PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material, thematic elements)    Director: The Spierig Brothers    Screenplay: Tom Vaughan and The Spierig Brothers    Music: Peter Spierig    Cinematography: Ben Nott    Release date: February 2, 2018 (US)    Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Angus Sampson, Tyler Coppin, Eamon Farren, Laura Brent.


 Style definitely trumps substance in Winchester, a good-looking haunted house movie based on a real-life haunting. The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA is said to be haunted by the spirits of the victims of Winchester rifles. The firearm magnate’s widow Sarah believed it to be true and spent the last 20 years of her life building and adding rooms to the expansive mansion. The construction workers labored around the clock 24/7 until her death in 1922. This much is fact. The rest of Winchester is pure fiction.

 Scary movies, especially those set in large haunted houses, are supposed to be fun. The sudden appearance of an apparition sends a collective jolt throughout the audience. Everybody jumps then laughs nervously afterwards. Winchester has a few decent jump-scares and “BOO!” scenes but sadly, it’s too restrained and takes itself more seriously than it should. For example, Helen Mirren (The Queen) could have camped it up a bit more as Sarah Winchester. Her performance is a bit too formal and respectful. She could have played up the unhinged aspects of her character. After all, she is kind of slumming it appearing in a silly genre picture such as this.

 winchesterAfter her husband’s death, Sarah became the primary owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The board members feel as though she’s mentally unfit to continue as the head of the company and seek to have her declared incompetent. They hire physician Eric Price (Clarke, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) to conduct a psychiatric evaluation of Sarah. A lawyer basically bribes him to decide in the board’s favor. He’s not having a good time of it lately. He’s a drug addict (laudanum) who sees visions of his dead wife who shot him before turning the gun on herself. He doesn’t believe in ghosts and hauntings or anything like that. That is, until he arrives at the house and observes the supernatural goings-on.

 For the most part, Winchester is your standard haunted house/ghost story. There’s nothing particularly original about the plot. All the major characters have experienced some sort of loss. A child staying at the house is affected by a malevolent spirit and nearly dies. There’s a specific reason Price was chosen for the job of evaluating Sarah. One twist can be seen coming from a mile away.

 Where Winchester mainly succeeds is in the area of set design. It should be noted that the movie was NOT filmed on location. It was shot in Melbourne, Australia. The sets were designed by Matthew Putland who spent four days exploring the mansion and taking hundreds of photos. The house is a complex maze of hallways and staircases going nowhere, doors that open to two-story drops and rooms within rooms. It looks like it was designed by a madman (or madwoman). It’s the ideal place for ghosts to pop out of the shadows. Plus, it’s all done without the aid of CGI (the set design, that is).

 Clarke gives a good performance as Dr. Price, a troubled character in need of healing. The cast does a pretty good job. The dialogue is florid and simple. At times, Winchester feels like one of those old Vincent Price drawing-room movies. Directed by The Spierig Brothers (last fall’s Jigsaw), it makes the most of its 1906 setting. The costumes and interiors are authentic. Everything feels true to its period. Plus, it has atmosphere out the wazoo. If only the makers had more fun with the story. Movies like Winchester should have a sense of devilish fun. The best ones are the cinematic equivalent of an amusement park funhouse. This one just kind of sits there looking great but not much else. It’s well-made but the execution could have been better. It’s still a decent matinee flick.

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