When whispers emerged of the unlikely collaboration between ‘Jigsaw’ directors The Spierig Brothers and British national treasure Helen Mirren, heads were turned ‘Exorcist’ style. Then followed the news that the production was in fact an early 2018 horror with ghosts and shit — starring a Calendar Girl? That’s when heads began to roll. The simple fact that our native Dame would be taming the supernatural in similar fashion to ‘Insidious’’ Elise Rainier was enough to peak interests and resign trepidation towards ‘Winchester’ being another cheap thrill-fest — combined with the brilliant tagline “Terror is Building”.
The intriguing true story of estranged widower Sarah Winchester — heiress of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company — brought validity to the narrative surrounding her 1906 creation of a nonsensical mansion — a labyrinth of rooms, corridors and stairways to nowhere that she paid constructors generously to keep expanding. The premise — if independently construed — would be hard to swallow without the affirming “Based on true events” intro that lurches fear factors to high alert. That being said, a handful of real account adaptations struggle to restrain from filling in the blanks of these events with confusing drivel. Winchester battles to be different but is ultimately lessened by plot babble, despite incorporating a unique perspective on guns (particularly the Winchester rifles) being the deadliest of weapons.
The auspicious beginning is made of a prologue that’s quick to establish the haunted house blues, painted with a palette of musky cool tones warmed by candlelight that’s visually quaint — much like admiring an old antique. Ben Nott’s artistic direction adds sophistication and texture to the storyboard featuring a beautiful introductory scene of San Francisco in twilight. Whether this was Michael and Peter Spierig’s inspiration from the ‘Saw’ franchise — that leans heavily on rich saturation — or a stroke of creative intuition that facilitates Winchester’s authenticity and becomes a gift for the eyes. Combining the senses of sight and sound, there’s an appreciation for the early 20th Century dialogue (penned by the Spierig duo) that’s pleasant to follow and highlights the beauty of the English language — emphasising the poetic creation that’s been abandoned by an age of abbreviations and hashtags. Both elements initiated the tale with hopeful expectations that was sadly crushed under the weight of the spooky house.
The grand unveiling of Helen Mirren’s Mrs Winchester quickly pegged her as enchanting and the main attraction of the manor from Hell. As the novelty of the opening perks wore away, Mirren competed to keep elegance in the air that rarely failed to intrigue but inevitably lacked the superhuman strength to withstand the conclusive earthquake — posing the question, does Helen Mirren really belong in this niche genre of horror? Unfortunately, not this time. Her eagerness that changed the usual suspects of a scary movie was admirable, but the story’s direction had her drowning in a sea of dark matter with no hope of revival. One could wonder what Winchester could have been in the hands of James Wan or Guillermo del Toro that would have played to Mirren’s finesse and Sarah Winchester’s complexity — Simply put, she was too good for this production.
Hired to assess Mrs Winchester’s mental state is Jason Clarke’s Dr Eric Price — an unorthodox psychologist who favours ingesting poison to mask the clichéd troubled past — aptly facilitating the “Is this scary shit real? Or is it all in my head?” scenario — a neat justification, but all too spoon fed for an audience that knows better. Price is introduced as a typical agnostic doctor who considers fear to be conquerable by the mind and ghosts to be a fabrication of delusion — so, denouncing these steadfast beliefs should take a bit of persuasion, right? Wrong. Scream queens show more restraint to investigating a noise in the basement.
Sarah Snook carries a credible presence in the 1906 setting — as Mrs Winchester’s unnamed niece — mothering a rather insignificant child who might as well have been a mute. Both share residence at the mansion where Snook’s maternal presence was unconvincing, stifling any emotional connection with the audience that could have been channelled by her independently. The niece showed strength in character that was grounding, but her resilience became underused instead of restoring balance to the chaos unravelling in the central storyline.
The Spierig’s deliver on visuals and hint at ‘The Conjuring’ styled tension, however Winchester still stands at the end of the day, a self-induced heart attack — poor jump-scares and a rushed conclusion to fit into a 99 min runtime that purged any defining qualities established from the outset. Essentially what should have been a biopic of Sarah Winchester and her architectural wonder, became a building of grandeur and intricacy that was unjustly ignored as a character itself and belittled to accommodate an unfulfilled farce. For all its disorientating features of doors and staircases that led to nowhere — the Winchester mystery house remained unexplored and misused.
Helen Mirren has poise and a strange seduction to convince you into believing that ‘Winchester’ is a game-changer — only to fool and leave you insisting through gritted teeth that she and Mrs Winchester deserve better. True stories can work in their candor, where the mystery of unknown details is more powerful than cheap Pollyfilla — and calls for a suitable director to build a durable platform and showcase this Dame’s talents in horror.
Directors: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Starring: Helen Mirren, Sarah Snook, Jason Clarke, Angus Sampson, Bruce Spence