My wife Julia first told me about the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. She told me how, as a child, her mother took her and her siblings there, which has 160 rooms, trap doors and passages and stairs leading nowhere.
The massive house, full of random, puzzling touches meant to confuse ghosts, is the creation of Sarah Winchester. Mrs. Winchester believed the home to be infested with the spirits of those killed by the rifles manufactured by her husband’s famous firearms company. At one point during her tour, Julia departed from the group, wandered down a hall and was discovered by an employee. “You need to get back to your tour,” the employee told her. “Don’t you know this house is haunted?”
Consider this movie, simply titled Winchester, a prequel to that famous tourist attraction. Jason Clarke stars as a troubled, drug-addicted doctor hired to investigate the mental stability of Sarah Winchester (played by Helen Mirren). The setting is 1906, the house is under constant construction and already the haunting is going strong. Mrs. Winchester is always dressed in a veiled black dress, house guests are constantly being possessed and even large-scale earthquakes occur within the property.
While some of the movie was shot on location, most of this was made in Australia by the talented Spierig Brothers, the directing team of the unique, darkly funny vampire thriller Daybreakers and the wonderful Ethan Hawke-led sci-fi sleeper Predestination. Their latest is consistently spooky and has a strong visual sense but is, at best, merely not-bad.
This may be the only haunted house chiller in memory with an anti-gun message, which plays as strangely as it reads. This isn’t the only thing heavy-handed about Winchester. While there are some good jolts early on (a scene involving a mirror is as good as the movie gets), the pacing is too rushed and some of the set-pieces are too large scale to be scary. There’s also the repeated use of a roller skate to generate jump scares, which feels a tad desperate.
Mirren gives this a class and gravity that Bette Davis once gave her late-career horror films. While the legendary Mirren is better than this film deserves, at least she isn’t slumming it as severely as she was in The Fate of the Furious or RED 2. Clarke seems miscast and co-star Sarah Snook (whose performance in Predestination is an underrated wonder) has too many scenes in which she looks scared while carrying a lantern down a dark hallway.
This isn’t really an actor’s movie but a chance for the Spierigs to show off and make the audience jump and scream. There was a lot of that when I saw this in a theater, but it’s not the kind of creeper that lingers in the mind long after the lights come back on. Winchester has its moments but it’s also PG-13–it’s a safe, creaky, old fashioned throwback. The opening credits suggest a Dan Curtis ’70s nostalgia trip, but really, Burnt Offerings and any five minutes of The Others has this beat.
It’s worth noting that the website for the Winchester Mystery House not only advertises a Halloween Candlelight Tour and a Friday the 13th Flashlight Tour but dedicates a page to this movie. Winchester may drum up business for its attraction but the best thing you can say is that it’s scarier than Eddie Murphy’s Haunted Mansion.
If you’re in San Jose and check out the house, please send me an email and tell me all about it. Just remember to stay with your tour group. After all, you know the house is haunted, right?