By: Steve Pulaski
The last four months have not been kind to the Spierig Brothers, Michael and Peter. The promise the writing/directing duo showed audiences with their films Daybreakers and Predestination has faded into indifference after the unfortunate misfire that was Jigsaw, the umpteenth sequel to the long-running Saw franchise, and continues to dissolve with the release of Winchester. After being sorely disappointed by Jigsaw, a film that I thought would be hardly passable as a direct-to-DVD sequel let alone one privileged with a theatrical release, I had hope the Spierig Brothers would at least appear more comfortable with an original story down the road. In addition, it was only going to be another few months from Jigsaw's release that we would see if the duo could seize another opportunity.
With Winchester, we have a film about as mediocre as their previous effort, despite being more ambitious and decorated. The film attempts to depict the history of the Winchester Mystery House, a legendary attraction in San Jose, California rumored to be haunted by the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles. The estate belonged to Sarah Winchester, the widow of rifle-manufacturer William Winchester, who harbored the belief that the lavish mansion is cursed, rendering her and her surviving family members who lived in the home in grave danger. The house itself, which oddly enough became more historically relevant than Winchester or her late husband for that matter, is famous for its labyrinth-like qualities and ongoing renovations and construction projects overseen by Winchester up until her death in 1922. The Winchester Mystery House was an insane 24,000 square feet palace, with 40 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms, 10,000 windows, a pipeline-system for communication to rooms from a great distance, and dozens of unconventionally designed staircases that permitted Winchester herself to move about the home with ease.
Given the saturation of supernatural films, it's comes as a bit of a surprise that it took this long for a dramatization about the famous Winchester mansion to be made. Furthermore, it comes as a greater disappointment to see a rock-solid concept sacrificed for a familiar blend of haunted house cliches and cacophonous jump-scares and synthesizers that impede on what is perhaps the real horror of the story. Winchester was a woman who, in some ways, created her own reality in the form of a massive safe-house for herself, and that reality began to take over to the point where it became impossible for her to discern what was real and what was a figment of her imagination. Rather than examining Winchester's descent into madness, the Spierig brothers and co-writer Tom Vaughan aim for the low-hanging fruit, finding ways to make floorboards creak and mirrors gently careen to show demons among us as if to remind of us the redundant ploys we've seen in most films of this genre.
Helen Mirren, who plays Sarah Winchester, does everything she possibly can as a seasoned performer to bring her role, and the film, some gravitas. Her efforts are commendable but her success mostly futile because there's nothing for her to use as fuel to bring out the layers in her character. Winchester is essentially a victim of her surroundings, sometimes interviewed by Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who is called upon to evaluate the mental health of the elderly woman, and his own perceptions are muddied due to his dependence on hallucinogens. So rare is a film with two fascinatingly unreliable characters, one a paranoid shut-in, the other a laudanum-addict, a setting that offers a host of juicy possibilities, and a Gothic ambiance that doesn't even attempt to get beneath the surface on any of those attributes. In a way, it disrespects the inclusions of its story by taking them for granted and not realizing their complexities as opportunities to tell a more meaningful story.
Sometime after the film's first act, which does a mostly competent job of illustrating what will become the more integral parts of the mansion, Winchester loses its direction and veers off course into a muddle of the cheapest elements present in the supernatural genre. The Spierig Brothers showed that they might not be the best at functioning in the genre of torture porn, to which I gave them the benefit of the doubt and looked forward to this film as a silver-lining. If you can't recognize, and therefore capitalize on, some thematically dense and richly drawn character types in your film, your ability to get the benefit of the doubt once again gets much tougher. The Spierig Brothers, like the Winchester mansion, need serious rebranding.