A doctor on sabbatical named Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is invited to stay in the house of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) to examine her for signs of insanity. Sarah is the heiress to a gun manufacturing company which she inherited from her late husband. His death and that of their child have left her in deep mourning. Helen believes that she is cursed and that her house is haunted by ghosts, and while Doctor Price initially doubts the demonic presence in the Winchester home, he begins to change his mind when he witnesses more and more strange occurrences there.
Anyone reading the plot summary of Winchester will see that the film is quite traditional – traditional in the sense that it is fairly predictable, evenly paced through its three act structure, and lacking anything of note in originality of concept. Still, the film begins promisingly enough, determined to have its audience on edge with an effective use of jump scares, which in fairness it does accomplish. One particularly inspired scene involves an impressive use of a mirror and chair, and the twist at the end of the sequence does give viewers quite a fright. One might say that jump scares are cheap, but then again, one goes to horrors to be scared, right? But what good horrors do which Winchester doesn’t is to give you a consistent, growing sense of unease as the movie progresses. Good horrors have characters which you feel a connection with, and in the finale, they reveal a worthy, horrifying monster.
The problems with Winchester are numerous but its main issue is that it sets itself up as a genuine horror, only to become increasingly silly rather than scary as the film progresses. The ghost that constitutes the main ‘baddy’ lacks any serious scare factor and the rest of the ghosts become much less frightening as we learn that they are victims who are actually quite reasonable. In fact, they can even loan a helping hand – where’s the horror in that? The film additionally undermines its status as a horror by constantly reiterating that fear is only in the mind, a premise that the character played by Jason Clarke (a good leading man, but deserving of so much better than this) utters to himself repeatedly. It feels like a second-rate knock-off of the Thir13en Ghosts line ‘There’s no such thing as ghosts’, with second-rate knock-off feeling extendable to the film as a whole.
Helen Mirren, God love her, is wonderful, delivering the most ridiculous of lines with total sincerity and grandeur, but even she can’t save this dispiriting, pointless movie.