Horror films are one of the most lucrative genres in film. Not only are they relatively cheap to produce, but people as a whole love to be frightened, a combination that inherently make really good bedfellows. What’s even better — the film as a whole doesn’t even have to be that good to get people interested. In fact, people expect some level of corniness, whether it be in the acting, the plot or the deaths. This isn’t to say people don’t expect a level of sophistication, but as long as the movie is sincere about it’s intentions, it’s not necessarily required for entries in this genre. When producers do decide to elevate the material, such as in last year’s Get Out, it can add a new sense of pathos to the quality of the viewing experience. Then again, trying to add too much results in a oddly-psychedelic experience like mother!.
The newest entry on the horror block, Winchester — the story of the supposedly most haunted house in North America, once owned by Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the wife of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company owner, William — wants very much for you to believe that it’s more than your average horror flick. After all, it secured the likes of award winning actors Mirren and Jason Clarke as its leads. But that’s about where it ends, as it seems the budget for the cast was used to secure those two actors, leaving hardly anything for the rest, who by comparison, make it clear they aren’t nearly ready to appear alongside these well-known stalwarts.
Clarke plays Eric Price, a psychologist hired by the Winchester lawyers to evaluate Sarah’s mental capacity before ousting her as majority shareholder in the company. The reason they don’t believe she’s of sound mind and body is because of her penchant for continuously building on her mansion twenty-four seven. But is the reclusive woman truly unfit, or are there other reasons for her quirky behavior? Eric agrees to stay in the house during his evaluation, but what he finds is far more than what he expected.
Aside from its stars, it’s clear directors Michael and Peter Spierig want to elevate the material beyond a simple haunting. They do what they can to subvert the most popular haunted house tropes — person moves in; person begins to be haunted; person goes to the library or finds a box of old news clippings; person hires a priest to cleanse the home; supernatural beings are vanquished (and sometimes they come back) — by keeping the spirits from playing games with its inhabitants and giving good reason for why supernatural phenomena happen gradually throughout.
As the story goes, Sarah Winchester built the “mystery mansion” to house vengeful spirits who were shot and killed by the Winchester rifle. To do so, she built rooms that signified or recreated the place of death and locked the spirits within these rooms by a piece of wood with thirteen nails. But there’s one spirit waiting for his room to be completed, that seems to be much more powerful than the rest, gaining the ability to possess Sarah’s great-nephew (Finn Scicluna-O-Prey). This concept is interesting, and plays nicely into the overall ideas, but once again highlight the issues that resonate within the film.
Not a lot seems to happen here, but that’s about par for this genre; they’re meant to scare you, not preach a life lesson. Winchester, though, has a nagging atmosphere without purpose. Not only do they do hardly anything with the possession aspects, but Sarah’s niece (Sarah Snook) and great-nephew have almost nothing to do with the overall story other than to pad the run time of the script, making it more a distraction than anything else. Then there’s the neglect to focus on the more intricate, maze-like quality and oddities of the mansion itself. They mention the fact that it’s not your ordinary house and there are a couple of moments that lend themselves to the plot, but the Spierig brothers never really utilize this aspect of the home, which keeps the viewer from truly investing in the abnormal bizarre that’s been constructed.
The Spierig brothers do, however, offer up a quiet message dealing with loss, letting go of the past, and having the courage to move on after someone you care about passes on. In that way, Eric is very much like the spirit that haunts the family, they just show their grief in very different ways. This juxtaposition does add a little depth to the characters, and Clarke does a good job of showing a deep, ingrained pain without hitting you over the head with it. With that said, the climax doesn’t quite feel as powerful as it should have. All of the elements are there and everything is set up nicely for a powerful moment of clarity and release, but something is still missing. We’re not told enough or given enough information to truly connect with Eric’s past, and therefore when the climactic moment comes, I know what I was supposed to feel, I just couldn’t find a way to ingest it.
Whether the events of the film are true or not is up to you to believe, but as a horror film, Winchester does what it can to elevate itself among your typical haunted house movie but can’t keep from feeling like a run-of-the-mill haunted house flick with top-tier actors. Then again, isn’t a simple story with a strong spirit who wrecks havoc on the lives of the living exactly what the general horror fan expects?
My Grade: B+
For a movie that is full of the three C’s — coincidence, contrivance and convenience — Maze Runner: The Death Cure is a fun escape that does what it needs to entertain fans and close out the intriguing trilogy with satisfaction. A-
Next week, new movies include Fifty Shades Freed, Peter Rabbit and The 15:17 To Paris. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.