'Winchester' lacks the narrative heft to match its formidable cast

Academy Award® winner Helen Mirren in WINCHESTER to be released by CBS Films and Lionsgate. (Photo: CBS Films)

2 out of 5 Stars
Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Writer: Tom Vaughan, Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
Starring: Helen Mirren, Sarah Snook, Jason Clarke
Genre: Horror
Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements

Synopsis: On the behest of the Winchester Repeating Arms company, disgraced doctor (Jason Clarke) travels to the Winchester mansion to discern if Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the heiress of the Winchester fortune, is still mentally fit to run the famous gun manufacturer.

Review: The Winchester Mystery House is something of legend. Thought to be haunted, the home is a sprawling, disjointed marvel of architecture as its owner, Sarah Winchester. The home was originally built in 1883, but additional rooms were added up to Winchester’s death in 1922. It is suggested that the home is haunted by the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles.

Fact and myth surround the home. Myth often being more interesting than fact, but doesn’t diminish the home’s story potential. Particularly if you’re willing to embrace the most unusual legends as the basis of a horror film. Which is exactly what “Winchester” tries to do.

Being loosely based on fact, “Winchester” comes with a pre-established backstory that informs the world of the film, but to try and claim that the film is based on truths is rather dubious. Had the story been based on actual events it might have been more engaging.

As it stands, “Winchester” is an emotionally detached experience that desperately needs to connect with its audience to have any hope of being effective. The film’s art direction is quite good and creates an interesting atmosphere that doesn’t feel completely utilized. We’re often told that it is easy to get lost in the mansion, but were only shown a handful of rooms. The bulk of the action takes place in the same sections of the home. This makes sense when it comes down to the movie’s budget, but sacrifices many of the possibilities that a home with more than 100 rooms offers.

The performances are fine, I’d expect no less from Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke, but the script feels very much like the Winchester home: an unfinished project brought to an abrupt end. The ideas aren’t bad, they just aren’t explored in a way that grabs the audience. We’re asked to care for the characters, but they never show any real depth. When it comes to horror, I very much want to be an active participant, not an observer.

Beneath the surface, “Winchester” might want to also be a film about guns and violence as it relates to the contemporary world. I like that the subtext isn’t forced upon the audience, but I also feel like the film didn’t do a particularly good job of examining gun violence in the first place.

“Winchester” isn’t bloody enough to appease that gorehounds and isn’t smart enough to draw in those looking for a truly frightening experience. If Helen Mirren and a handful of jump scares is good enough, then I suppose “Winchester” will do.

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