Remember when Disney spawned a film out of their Haunted Mansion theme park ride? Well, now there’s a version for grownups. We know it’s for grownups because this one’s a 15 and inspired ‘eerily’ by ‘actual events’, namely the real Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. Being no better, a barbershop quartet of busts might actually have improved this one.
The death of her husband to tuberculosis in 1881 left Sarah Winchester (here, Dame Helen Mirren) an extraordinarily wealthy woman. Specifically, a widow with a $20.5m (around $520m today) rifle-manufacturing fortune that was growing by the day thanks to the 50% ownership she had been bequeathed of her late husband’s Repeating Arms Company. Being one of America’s richest women should have been a peachy existence for Sarah, except, with the death too of her infant daughter, she allegedly became convinced that a curse had befallen her. On the advice of a Boston medium, who assured her that she was being haunted by the ghosts of all who had ever died at the shot of one of her family’s rifles, Sarah decamped west to build a home for the unquiet dead with her new found wealth. It’s the Best Exotic Marighooled Hotel, if you will.
Taking a hokey premise and adding a dollop of hokum was always going to make for a lame duck of a film and, to that end, the Spierig brothers have done a spectacular job. Winchester is the sort of wannabe horror film that ticks boxes and scores a full (haunted) house at the cliché bingo. The rocking chair, the creepy kid (with a heinously poor wig), the singing bit, the mirror with a sudden face appearing…all present and correct. There are even shots of Mirren prowling around at midnight, dressed head to toe like a Woman in Black tribute act.
Speaking of the Susan Hill novella, Winchester is set up in the same mould. Jason Clarke plays Eric Price, a laudanum-abusing doctor – replete with ‘history’ – who is hired by the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms company to psychologically asses Sarah, in a bid to have her booted out of the business. Price has been promised $600 to give ‘the appropriate assessment’ – essentially: he’s got to prove she’s gaga.
Pummelling audiences with the same jump-scare set up over and over again, Winchester is at its best when it’s at its worst; which is to say, in instances of sheer risibility. One scene, for example, sees Mirren forced to act out ‘automatic writing’, which she does in imitation of one of the Muppets. Likewise, hilariously worse-for-wear extras have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing in the background and so lumber around, repeatedly whacking planks with hammers and barely responding to the main action. Watch for the moment in which a child launches himself from a window, only to be caught by a heroic Clarke and shrugged off by workmen as though this happens every day. That’s not even the silliest part of said scene – which would be the fact that every main character suddenly appears on the site immediately after, in spite of an understanding that the house is a giant, sprawling maze that takes forever to get around.
When it comes to the mansion itself, looking for all the world like something from the Sylvanian Families range, endless aerial shots pepper the action and yet utterly fail to capture the scale of the thing. Similarly, atmosphere befitting of the Victorian spook-fest being aimed at here is entirely curtailed by oddly luminous lighting. The result is a genially pleasant cinematic effect totally at odds with the plot, themes and acting.
Whilst it would be wrong to lump the output of an entire country into one, following The Babadook and Better Watch Out, we’ve come to expect better from low budget Australian horror fare. Winchester is a screaming mess.