For whatever reason, 2017 was a strong year for movie ghost stories. Most on the nose was David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, but films as diverse as Personal Shopper, Your Name, Get Out and Coco also dealt with post-life presences unable to move on. Whether all that supernatural introspection was inspired by recent sociopolitical events or was simply a quirk of the international exhibition schedule is up for debate, but the mix of sensitivity and subversion in all those films made it seem like more than a mere accident.
If the dispiriting Winchester is any kind of bellwether for 2018, though, it won’t be long before the living envies the dead. All the feel-good phantasmagoria of 2017 turns to slime with this deadly dull film about Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the real-life heiress and amateur architect who created the strange San Jose structure that became known as the Winchester Mystery House. Most blame goes to those meddling kids, the writing and directing team of Michael and Peter Spierig (Jigsaw), who both spin this tattered yarn with all the gracelessness of an amusement park owner wearing a cheap monster mask.
Winchester takes place in 1906, on the eve of the San Francisco earthquake, and largely takes place in the San Jose mansion that the widowed Sarah turned into a nonstop construction site. The film takes literally the legend that Sarah designed the unusual home, which features doors opening into walls and stairways that lead to nowhere, to hold spirits killed by the Winchester rifles that created her fortune.
As the film opens, representatives from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company recruit Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a grieving, drug-addicted, deep-in-debt doctor, to visit the house and assess Sarah’s mental state. Sarah lives in the house with her niece (Sarah Snook) and grand-nephew, a creepy ginger kid who soaks up demonic possession like a sponge, and she takes her architectural direction from the undead. Eric is skeptical about Sarah’s claims of communing with ghosts, writing off his weird visions as symptoms of drug withdrawal or acute grief, but the evidence begins to mount.
Even more galling than the lifeless setup of Winchester is the gutless follow-through. After over an hour of staggering in place, the story suddenly grinds into gear for a big showdown that offers an unnecessary amount of credibility to the ghost of an ex-Confederate mass murderer, a real chickenshit, teach-the-controversy kind of move.
From the retro title card to the turn-of-the-century setting, it’s clear that the Spierig brothers are striving for something “old-fashioned,” which in their callowness they interpret as “boring and slow.” Rather than the kinkiness, steel-wire storytelling and textural richness of true classic horror films, we get Jason Clarke endlessly stumbling through dark hallways. The utter lack of scares, even cheap scares, is borderline offensive—I don’t need a demonic clown screaming straight into the camera for two hours to feel terror, but Winchester is simply lazy. Marlon Wayans has made scarier haunted house films.