For those who have never heard of the Winchester Mystery House, it’s a popular “true” ghost story in American History. Sarah Winchester, one of the wealthiest women in the world thanks to her 50% stake in the Winchester Repeating Arms company, oversaw the never ending construction and expansion of the Winchester mansion which was worked on for thirty-eight years until her death. The ghost story about the mansion is that Sarah Winchester believed that the mansion had to be built to appease the spirits of those who were killed by the weapons made by the Winchester company. The never ending, haphazard construction of the mansion lead to bizzare architecture including doors and staircases that would lead to nowhere and windows that didn’t look outside but rather into different rooms and hallways. The maze of a mansion captured the public’s imagination and the mansion, along with its story became a popular tourist destination for those interested in the supernatural, including the famous Harry Houdini who is said to have been the one to give the mansion the name ‘Mystery House.’
It’s easy to see why the Winchester Mansion would make for a good horror movie. All the parts are there. The ghosts, the scary and confusing mansion, the time period, the true story aspect, so the fact that an eventual movie would be made about the Sarah Winchester and her mansion isn’t surprising at all. The fact that the movie was able to cast Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester should have been a good sign as well. Unfortunately, Mirren’s casting seems to have been the only blessing that the movie got.
Helen Mirren, as Sarah Winchester, still controls the majority of the Winchester company in 1906, the year that the movie takes place. In an effort to remove her from her position in the company, a doctor named Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is hired to evaluate her state of mind with the unspoken understanding that he will need to find her unfit due to her erratic belief in the supernatural. Sarah Winchester is pretty upfront about her thoughts on ghosts and the curse on her. According to her, the Winchester Rifle has brought constant pain and misery into the world, and the spirits of those killed by a winchester weapon have returned to haunt her.
We get the back and forth that you would expect from a haunted house movie. The believer says that there are ghosts all around, the rational thinker knows that this is impossible, but mysterious things keep happening which can’t be explained and are slowly escalating in severity. Winchester seems fine in following the formula with Eric constantly finding himself in situations where something happens that’s scary enough to make the audience jump but never seeming to leave enough evidence to convince him of anything supernatural that’s happening. The problem is this happens again and again and again.
It’s not impossible to pull off a really good jump scare in a horror movie, but the “jump scare” gets a deservedly bad rap, because it’s easy to pull off a mediocre one, and usually they’re used as a cheap, lazy way to try and trick an audience into thinking they’re watching something scary. Winchester feels like the movie is one long series of jump scares. Maybe it’s because the action all takes place in a haunted house, but the movie acts like we the audience are supposed to be on edge all the time. Almost every scene has all the tell tell signs that something is about to jump out at us. Every room is the creepy empty room. Every non-talking servant is the mysterious, unsettling figure to keep an eye on. Every hallway, is the long, dark hallway that looks to be full of horrors just beyond the light. Winchester goes for broke and tries to make every moment of the movie the scary part. But when everything is scary, nothing is scary.
Horror works as a film genre because of the rise and fall of the tension from scene to scene. It’s that unexpected change in the norm that gets you. That slow creep of discomfort followed by a descelation to lure you into a false sense of security. It’s about striking a balance and when done right, a horror movie can hold you in the palm of it’s hand. Winchester goes full tilt almost all the time, and once you’re used to this, the tense suspense of a horror movie just melts away. What’s supposed to be scary just ends up being boring. Being bored, watching Winchester, it’s easy to see how the plot of the movie doesn’t really add up. While the rules for what ghosts can and can’t do can vary depending on the story, the audience still has a general idea of how a ghost is supposed to work. Winchester makes some changes to general ghost lore, which could be fine, except not only does the movie never do a good job of explaining the changes, but the movie isn’t even consistent in its own internal rules when it comes to ghosts. While the Winchester Mansion may be one of the more famous haunted houses in the country, the movie never able to amount to more than a somewhat frustrating mess.
Tags: film, Helen Mirren, horror, movie, review, winchester