Inspired by true events. On an isolated stretch of land 50 miles outside of San Francisco sits the most haunted house in the world. Built by Sarah Winchester, (Academy Award®-winner Helen Mirren) heiress to the Winchester fortune, it is a house that knows no end. Constructed in an incessant twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week mania for decades, it stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To the outsider it looks like a monstrous monument to a disturbed woman's madness. But Sarah is not building for herself, for her niece (Sarah Snook) or for the brilliant Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) whom she has summoned to the house. She is building a prison, an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts, and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters.
In the year 1906, Dr. Eric Price, a washed-up therapist with a cryptic past, is employed by the bank to interview Sarah Winchester, a rumored mad-woman and inheritor of the enormous Winchester fortune. What Dr. Price finds is a woman shrouded in mystery in a house of vengeful spirits looking to put an end to Winchesters once and for all.
The horror film industry is constantly at odds with its own clichés: Ghosts, ghouls, and wicked spirits have all been circulated across the big screen time and time again since the beginnings of the horror genre. As a result, modern horror is often judged by its ability to inject some semblance of originality amidst the tried-and-true tropes (i.e. creaking doors, family curses, the monster in the attic). Winchester, starring the illustrious Helen Mirren and directed by the somewhat-obscure Spierig brothers, takes on one of the most cliché horror tropes of them all: the haunted mansion.
One thing needs to be said. The Spierig brothers should be commended for taking on the considerable challenge of revisiting “the haunted mansion” plot in the modern era. The image of the haunted mansion alone is so incredibly ingrained in the human pathos. To successfully rework that image into something familiar yet new would no doubt be celebrated among critics and moviegoers. In this one regard, Winchester is somewhat successful, introducing the concept of the ever-changing mansion.
The mansion is under constant around-the-clock development and is constructed in bizarre, counter-intuitive ways, representing the deteriorating minds of the house’s tenants: staircases that lead to nowhere, hallways with doors that don’t open. The connection between the illusions our minds create and spaces they inhabit is an interesting theme that the film begins to explore.
But the film lights a cannon and fires all that right out the window in the 2nd act.
Don’t get me wrong, the plot still develops into something interesting and original, but the pacing and character development takes a massive turn for the worst as soon as questions begin to be answered. The only thing to keeping this film afloat through the 2nd act are some cheap, predictable jump scares and a main character with waning believability as he goes from one monotonous, plot-progressing conversation to the next with construction workers, cryptic butlers, and Sarah Winchester.
There’s also a few throwaway characters that the film introduces for no other reason than to progress the plot, as those characters have little to no emotional depth and are almost indiscernible from each other as far as character. Australian born actress Sarah Snook does her best in a role that offers completely predictable dialogue and forced development.
Amidst all this plot-progressing filler is a handful of cheap jump scares to remind the viewer that this is supposed to be a horror film. But nothing else about the film promotes any sense of dead or looming danger.
All of this leads to a completely mundane and CGI-riddled ending that is, without giving too much away, completely contradictory to earlier themes in the film. If I had to guess, I would say that the production of the final hour of the film was rushed, and, as a result, completely underthought.
In the end, Winchester does offer some original ideas, but no amount of originality can save a film from terrible pacing, paper-thin characters, and an unsatisfying ending. Until this film is available on a streaming service, I would give this one a hard pass.
Trailer Courtesy of Zero Media - YouTube
From the Editor:
Facts about WInchester you may not have known!
Winchester is only very loosely based of actual events. That line was more a marketing ploy that seems to be more common these days. Funny how they never say - how much is based on actual events! Yes, there was a lady names Sarah Winchester that lived and owned a mansion in San Jose within that time period. She had a beautiful mansion which even up until the time of her death was still growing. They why, well that's a cloudier story!
Sarah Winchester's supernatural 'interest' came after the death of her daughter Annie, and continued to grow after the death of her husband.
According to her biographer Mary Jo Ignoffo, there was no hauntings - just tales made up by the local media. There is no evidence of possession, malicious spirits which is in conflict of the opinion of the medium she had hired. The medium told her she had to keep building making everything beautiful to the spirit world to protect herself from the Spirits seeking vengeance after they died at the hand of a Winchester Rifle.
And the last fun fact..... The reason pathways and stairways lead nowhere is because the damaged caused to the mansion by an Earth Quake that hit in 1906 was never repaired. Is that why some just lead to be cut off abruptly by a ceiling?
The truth, the fiction, you decide! Hope you enjoyed this review!
S.J Hardy for Cinemaddicts NZ.
P.S Just as an add on a very similar back story was used for Stephen Kings Rose Red! Also if you want to know about more about the real Sarah Winchester check out this short video documentary courtesy of Truth TV - YouTube
Sources for the 'fun facts' include the New York Times and YouTube Videos. Thanks all.