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An Inferior Haunting

The Winchester Mystery House of San Jose is one of the most famous haunted mansions in North America. Built by the daughter-in-law of the man who invented the Winchester rifle, many claimed it was haunted by the ghosts of the people killed by those weapons. Looming and vast, it’s been a progenitor or inspiration behind countless haunted house stories including Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House and even Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
Seems like the perfect subject matter to give to the directors of Jigsaw doesn’t it?
In 1906, Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is sent to San Jose to diagnose the eccentric heiress Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) and determine if she is mentally well after a series of bizarre behaviours. When he arrives at the mansion she’s rebuilding, she reveals her communication with spirits as these same ghosts in the house begin to haunt him as well.
Winchester is an extremely formulaic horror movie. The plot is absolutely banal and really cheesy the further in it gets; the characters are paper thin and the dialogue insipid. The idea of ghosts haunting a family who just happened to invent the specific firearm that killed them is already a little lame, and the movie’s additional plotting doesn’t help this any, because it falls back on too many tropes. For example, there’s a kid in this movie, which of course means he has to spend whole scenes possessed by a spirit, and all the times he’s not he can never act like a regular kid. The reveal of this possession early on also shows the movie’s utter lack of imagination, as the boy is seen walking around with a bag on his head and when the mother removes it there’s nothing at all odd about him except that his irises are white. This movie has no sense of mood it’s not stealing from a hundred other horror movies that do it better. Worst of all, there are no good scares and only lazily constructed suspense; it relies far too much on fake-outs and cheap jump scares -and the jump scares are so quick you don’t even register what they are over the obnoxious musical cue and swift lighting adjustment that accompanies every single one.
The one thing that’s really salvaged in this movie is Helen Mirren’s performance. But Helen Mirren is Helen Mirren and she’d have to try to give a bad performance. She spends the entire film in a black gown and veil of mourning as a symbol of the grief over her lost husband and son, as though she were a subverted Miss Havisham -which wasn’t true of the real Sarah Winchester. Her character can often be annoying and irrational, which is the point, but it nonetheless makes her very hard to invest in. Jason Clarke gives a decent performance, but he doesn’t quite have the talent to pull through this lesser material. The writers try to give his character a backstory relating to the main plot about the guilt he has over the death of his wife, but it’s never substantive enough for you to care. He mostly exists to be the typical sceptic object of jump scares as he wanders the place at night for no real reason. None of the other actors leave any imprint and for the most part aren’t very good.
All of these are par for the course for bad horror movies, but what irritates me is that this is a haunted house story, and one with a lot of potential. Given the legacy of the Winchester there’s a lot that could be done, and it deserved way more effort put in. Because that’s the biggest crime of this movie: there’s no effort. This could have been something as compellingly spooky as The Haunting (based on the aforementioned Jackson novel), incorporating psychological neuroses in its characters and claustrophobic cinematography in its presentation to make for a truly unnerving film. It should at least have been Crimson Peak. But it never attempts to make the Winchester itself scary, just the supernatural figures it places in it, and that’s not enough. Not everyone believes ghosts are real, but the Winchester House certainly is.
Parts of this movie were actually filmed at the Winchester House, which at least makes me more curious to see it. It’s bound to be more interesting than this movie, which is ultimately just another glaringly dull, instantly forgettable horror flick, recycling clichés and resorting to the same old shoddy plot devices. Like The Conjuring, Winchester opens with an assertion it’s inspired by true events, but I for one refuse to believe reality is that contrived.

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