On dull ghosts, carefully controlled labyrinths, location, location and location
Winchester CBS Films
Director: The Spierig Brothers
Screenplay: Tom Vaughn, Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Scicluna-O'Prey, Emm Wiseman, Angus Sampson and Eamon Farren
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 39 minutes / 2.35:1
February 2, 2018
(out of four)
You want to have a reason to be there. For any movie, really - but especially for one like Winchester in which the premise and the setting are completely inseparable. You want - need - the place itself to hold up its end of the bargain.
The film welcomes us into the labyrinthine stairways and corridors of the Winchester Mansion, its shape, size and structure under endless renovation. The construction crew - weary, but handsomely compensated - is on site in perpetuity. Fresh rooms are regularly being built, old ones torn down, interiors redecorated - floors and stairs and ramps and doors being added to accommodate each new (or remodeled) wing. Additions and extensions are simply installed or stacked wherever they fit - or sometimes even when they kinda don't; just as long as it's all attached, one way or another. The whole thing is a sprawling yet compact monstrosity, a Queen Anne maze without a finish line, meant to be neither completed nor comprehended.
A person could get lost in a place like that. Winchester the movie, not so much; it steadfastly resists any confusion or disorientation, refusing to allow this gargantuan eccentricity of a location to work its moody charms on us. The house belongs to Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), and she has to build a lot of rooms because she has a lot of tenants, and she has a lot of tenants because the tenants are ghosts, and she has a lot of ghost tenants because she has a lot of victims.
Well, not directly, of course. But as the majority owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, her product - though more directly, her late husband's product - has a lot of blood on its hands. She builds rooms for the dead - exact replicas of the rooms where they died via Winchester firearm. As if by guilty conscience, she's essentially created a vast supernatural repository where death is confronted and re-lived and reconciled with. Once a soul departs, its room is no longer necessary, and the construction crew can start taking it apart to make room for the next one.
The appeal, at least for me, of something with such a specific premise, physical setting and otherwise, is to see the way the filmmakers take on the conceptual challenge, play with its constraints, push back against them. I'll see it and I'll raise you one. But directors Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers, Jigsaw) don't meet that challenge. As co-writers of the film, they've teed themselves up with a good idea and a legit space to work with. But they're unwilling to follow the aesthetic and psychological logic of that space. For all the rooms supposedly filling this mansion, we basically spend most of our time in the same three or four rooms, and in the same couple of hallways. The Spierigs make it remarkably easy to get around - both for us and for out-of-his-element Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke, that sturdy bore of a leading man), who has arrived for a brief stay in order to make an assessment on the state of Mrs. Winchester's mental health. For all the spirits lurking throughout the building, and all the mysteries about this house that his hostess refuses to explain (at least at the start), he seems to find his way around with remarkable ease. The only moments of disorientation are cheap jump scares, like when he sees a ghoulish figure in his room that he assumes is just a drug-induced hallucination.
But the mansion never plays much on his mind, or ours. Or our senses. It looks awfully nice. So kudos to both the film's production-design team and that crackerjack crew of construction workers Mrs. Winchester keeps around. But it never becomes the unnerving supernatural bubble it's supposed to be. We're told that the rooms are all filled with angry or unsettled spirits (each one locked inside its chamber with the help of 13 nails). But we never spend any time in those rooms, or even near them. We just walk past them a lot. They're information - not atmosphere.
Even on a narrative level, the Spierig Brothers (along with fellow credited screenwriter Tom Vaughn) take a tepid approach. With that premise - and all the guilt, the fear, the violence built into it - the main thrust of the story boils down to "Meh, this one ghost who got killed by a Winchester is in an especially nasty mood."
Winchester seems hampered by the fact that it keeps one foot firmly in reality, with the other in the realm of the supernatural senses. The film is "based on a true story" - or "inspired by actual events," or whatever deceptively vague wording the producers chose to go with - which certainly explains it. But once something becomes fiction, it's fiction. Why not go all-in? The Spierigs seem uncertain how and when to violate real-world rules, and that seems like a strange hesitation. Once you're behind those doors, you've departed reality; you've accepted the spectral rules of the game.
Instead, the approach is frustratingly straightforward - except every now and then a ghost shows up. There's far too much plain logic (both narratively and visually) for a movie about dead people occupying individual rooms in a giant ghost-hotel for victims of one specific firearm brand. This is why the "true story" nonsense is such phony branding, even if it's technically accurate. Sarah Winchester may well have believed that such spirits haunted her, and may indeed have customized her house to accommodate that very purpose. But the movie doesn't take her point-of-view - or get too close to her at all, for that matter. It focuses on the good (mourning, drug-addicted) doctor - who's essentially being bribed by members of the Winchester board who want to see the old lady committed, thus seizing control of the company - and so we see her only as an eccentric old shut-in who eventually has to explain to him, and us, exactly how and why she's actually not totally crazy at all.
As for Dr. Price, he plays the "I'm a man of science, I only believe in what can be proven!" card, so he and the widow Winchester get to do that whole dance, only further bogging down a story that never finds any interesting footing. The lack of narrative imagination is disappointing coming from the Spierig Brothers, whose 2014 sci-fi Predestination - for all the ways it strained and wobbled - was impressive simply for the way it truly went for it, and followed its ideas all the way. Winchester does not. It stations itself in a grand castle of guilt and bloodshed, and turns that castle into just another haunted house.