The coldest months of the year are also traditionally the worst months for new movies. 2017 is no different. When a movie doesn’t even screen for critics during that chilly and crappy block in the cinematic calendar, oooh boy! You know it’s bad. Such is the unfortunate case of ‘Winchester’. Poor Helen Mirren. It’s been a rough week.
Like many a mediocre horror movie before it, ‘Winchester’ proudly announces that it’s “inspired by true events,” as if that makes the tedium of suffering through this tired collection of genre clichés masquerading as a movie any easier. “This must be scary because it really happened,” said no one who ever watched a horror movie with that label. In this case, the tale is based on Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), widow of the inventor of the rifle that bears that name. Following her husband’s death, Sarah used her fortune to buy a massive mansion that she continually had under construction, stretching out to a grand labyrinth of excessive wealth.
Apparently, the ghosts of people murdered by the infamous rifles have been guiding her building plans to recreate the rooms in which they died, so the mansion is a confusing and twisted maze with no logic. The Winchester board of directors aren’t too thrilled about Sarah’s irrational and wild spending, so they send a psychiatrist (Jason Clarke) to investigate the situation and see if maybe the old bat can be declared mentally unfit and get stripped of the family fortune. Of course, once he gets there, he realizes that he’s in for more than he bargained for. Ghosts. I’m talking about ghosts.
As you may have gathered, we’re in the land of jump scare horror. Spirits in mirrors, suddenly slamming doors, a mysterious cellar with spookiness inside… anything that allows the film to move from quiet to loud quickly enough to sneak in something resembling a scare. The ghosts all look to have been costumed out of the bargain bin of a shuttering costume shop. If they aren’t dressed in boring old-fashioned Western attire, then they’re slaves in chains or big stereotypical Native Americans (tomahawk included). It’s as offensive as it is tiresome. If you’re wondering how such unfortunate caricatures snuck into a mainstream movie in 2017, that’s because this is actually an Australian production pretending to be an American movie. Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t know better. Their knowledge of American history must have all come from old pop culture artifacts made before a time that such stereotypes were considered offensive.
No cliché is left untapped in this seemingly endless slog of exposition and perfunctory scares. It could almost be confused as a student film were it not for the high(ish) production values and recognizable actors. Directing duties fell onto siblings Michael and Peter Spierig, which is a shame since they’re actually quite talented horror filmmakers who haven’t gotten enough opportunities. In movies like ‘Undead’ and ‘Daybreakers’, the Spierigs proved to be sharp genre movie nerds capable of toying with conventions and directing with slick style. Unfortunately, their original movies didn’t make much money, so now they sell their visual talents for cash. Like last year’s ‘Jigsaw’, ‘Winchester’ looks fantastic, but the story and world the Spierigs inherited just wasn’t worth their lavish visuals. It doesn’t matter how beautifully constructed a cheap scare is; it’s still a cheap scare.
At the center, Helen Mirren manages to retain her dignity. It’s hard to imagine why she’d take on such a rubbish project, other than the cash. Perhaps it’s merely that she hadn’t made a horror movie before. In as much as a horror movie should be at least slightly scary, she arguably still hasn’t made one. She showed up and read her lines, but there’s no real passion or effort behind her work. She can give a decent performance in her sleep at this point, and it’s entirely possible that eyes were painted onto her eyelids for most of this one. She barely seems present or conscious. She’s just kind of there, going through the motions and trying not to crack up whenever she has to deliver some particularly stupid bit of dialogue.
If you feel like going through the motions and pretending to yourself alongside Mirren, then by all means waste time and money on ‘Winchester’. Just don’t expect to remember anything even seconds after this stinker ends.