At first glance, Winchester seems to offer a fresh twist on the overdone horror genre. Released to audiences in the United States on Feb. 2, the film explores the story behind the Winchester Mystery House, and with a rich history of urban legends surrounding the cryptic mansion, brothers Michael and Peter Spierig had an interesting premise to work with in their film. Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), widow and heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, constantly expands and renovates her home to both capture and communicate with the spirits of those murdered by the Winchester rifle. A local doctor, Eric Price (Jason Clarke), is tasked with evaluating Sarah’s mental health and fitness to hold majority stake of the Winchester company by living in the haunted home with her for a week. Throughout the week, Price begins seeing the spirits that reportedly haunt Winchester.
Starring Academy Award-winning actress Helen Mirren, the film’s great cast ostensibly offers a promising performance. Mirren’s believable acting delivers something frightening yet tasteful, as she explores the emotional conflict within her character and exquisitely portrays the enigmatic Sarah Winchester, pushing her acting limits. Though one might be surprised that Mirren explores an entirely new genre with her performance, in an interview with io9, she explained her choice to act in Winchester.
“I don’t categorize this as a horror film,” she said. “I categorize it as a ghost story. I think there’s a real difference between the two. And I think ghost stories have had a long and rather noble history in filmmaking.”
Despite the intriguing concept and exciting casting, Winchester ultimately failed to escape the tropes so often associated with haunted house films. First, the directors rely on constant jump scares to try to build suspense throughout the film. Though it may come with the territory of the genre, the sheer amount within the film makes it ultimately predictable and unexciting. The movie also uses the trope of a creepy child to drive the plot forward through the nightly demonic possession of Henry, Winchester’s relative who lives in the home with her. Further embracing this trope are Henry’s creepy toys that make noise in hallways at night. From the vengeful spirit to the haunted basement, Winchester uses the cliches that saturate the horror genre.
Unfortunately, these horror movie cliches take away from the social impact of the film. Filled with a politically charged subtext about the role of guns in society, the movie tries to critique the human creation of a device designed primarily to kill. The message is subverted by the directors’ retreat into the comfort and ease provided by the stylistic elements of the haunted house template. This template, however, led to another dull and inconsequential horror movie.
Knowing that the film falls into this category of another cliche horror movie, it is still worth seeing in 4DX, the enhanced immersive cinematic experience. The moving seats of 4DX provide a weightless sense of unease as the camera pans over the mansion and throughout the creepy rooms, and the jump scares are made even more jarring and effective when the seat underneath you jolts at the same time. When the characters are shot on screen, viewers feel the bullets in the back of their seats. Finally, the climactic battles between the spirits and Winchester are made more dramatic through the lighting and motion effects from 4DX.
In the end, the directing brothers failed to produce any consequential content. With such an interesting premise and the acting of stars like Helen Mirren, the Spierig brothers could have made a movie that actually delivered a message condemning gun use in our society, or bearing some other social impact message. Instead, they produced a “ghost story” that really fails to differentiate itself from any other movie in its haunted house, trope-filled genre. Yet, if audiences are still compelled to see it anyway, one’s best bet would be to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of action, rather than expect any insightful implications.