WINCHESTER: Jump Scare City
The Spierig Brothers' latest "based on a true story" horror movie Winchester is a cinematic checklist of every dreadful 'haunted house' cliche, every formulaic competent that's been implemented by other, better genre entries.
Just after midnight, in the midst of silence, a frightening noise pierces the tranquil stillness of the Winchester house. Broken from his tempered sleep is our hero Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who, already suspicious of his temporary sleeping quarters, goes to investigate this new strange sound. Descending down the creaky stairs, the music swells, anticipating us for Eric to find a grim answer to his spontaneous search. The mysterious noises appear to be coming from the greenhouse, a decrepit old chamber rumoured to have an ancient ghost locked inside.
As Eric peers through a small crack into the closed off area, a loud BOOM erupts, matched with the face of a ghoulish creature, whose presence merely mugs at the camera before disappearing abruptly. Much like the audience at this moment, Eric is unfazed. His only response is to barely mumble “This is starting to feel like deja vu”, and at this moment, was the only time that I related to this character at all, due to having my own similar flashbacks of other, superior haunted house mysteries that been hijacked in order to construct this damaged zygote of Blumhouse schlock, which is the Australian-produced ‘based on a true story’ horror film Winchester.
Been There, Done That
The Spierig Brothers’ Winchester is a violent middle finger to all the great work achieved by the horror genre in 2017. Whilst horror has always been the backbone of Hollywood thanks to its consistent box office results and technical achievements, it really demonstrated its power in resonating with audiences last year, thanks to a succession of critical and commercial hits, with the most notable titles being IT, Raw, Get Out, Better Watch Out, Split and much more.
Each of these entries succeeded in not only using the genre features to touch upon socio-political topics, but features some really innovative and memorable sequences that’s sure to inspire another generation of directors to continue making more great work. Winchester does absolutely none of these things, instead The Spierig Brothers were happy in making this lazy, jump-scare diluted garbage, that in coming out six months after their pathetic Saw entry, should hopefully see them never attempt to make a horror film anytime in the future.
After the death of his wife, famed psychologist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) has fallen off the wagon, spending his nights half in the bag, surrounded by a parade of anonymous prostitutes. This disruptive lifestyle is altered by a strange request – he is asked to examine Sarah Winchester, the widow of famed gun manufacturer William Winchester. Sarah (Helen Mirren) has locked herself away in an isolated mansion, a ludicrously structured home that is under constant renovation, due to Sarah’s insistence that she is being haunted by all the souls of those killed by a Winchester rifle. With the Winchester company determined to kick Sarah from her powerful position and take control of the corporation themselves, they send Eric in to confirm their suspicions about Sarah’s mental health.
What could’ve been an intelligent psychological thriller, where the nature of Sarah’s spiritual beliefs are treated with a hint of ambiguity, is discarded immediately. As soon as Eric steps foot within the intricately built estate, we are treated to one of many jump scares, an annoyingly powerful boom stinger, paired with the appearance of some ugly ghostly figure. Not only does it become incredibly obnoxious pretty quickly, but it tells the audience right off the bat that Sarah is correct in her theories, which makes the rest of the running time a tedious endeavour. There’s no mystery, no unfolding narrative or sense of upcoming twists and turns, all Winchester is interested in is aggressively pounding you with as many loud bangs as it can, this is not entertainment, this is a diagnostic check to see if the cinema’s speaker system is still working.
Are You Scared Yet?
It’s not just the jump scares that indicate the awful derivative core of this film, it’s how every element feels taken from other sources, but done worse. This is a thrift store version of The Conjuring, lazily taking James Wan’s already used period setting and aesthetics, a dreary look that has also been borrowed for the spin-off Annabelle franchise. Much like the Annabelle series, The Spierig Brothers had the audacity to include a possessed child as one of the primary antagonists in this garbage pile (because the idea of a haunted house filled with the victims of gun violence simply wasn’t enough).
Holy toledo, when are we going to be done with scary kids already? It’s always the same deal, filmmakers trying to juxtapose the immaculate innocence of childhood with evil demonic features, which is just usually giving the kids pale eyes, growly voices and violent, animalistic body transformations and expecting us to shudder at their existence alone. It doesn’t work, especially when it was already perfected by William Friedkin back in 1973.
As the absurdly misguided climax attempts to guide my sympathies towards the countless amounts of victims of gun violence, my only sense of empathy was directed at the talented cast, who all suffer here, thanks to a script and cinematic direction that obviously does not care about them. Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Helen Mirren and Angus Sampson are all very talented actors, and have displayed their adeptness to genre material in the past, but they are so wasted here (Clarke in more ways than one).
Each of these main players feels like their acting in their own seperate standalone adventures, with Jason Clarke trying to explore a grieving man of medicine whose talents are questioned, Helen Mirren is a fantastical psychic who must personally fight inner and outer demons, and Sarah Snook is off in her own fruitless subplot, recreating Essie Davis’ ordeal from The Babadook, all the way down to clutching her child and screaming at oncoming demons in a blacked out room. Not only do these diverting stories never come together in a satisfying or cohesive manner, but nothing that’s introduced within the 95 minute running time has any meaning or function outside existing for a singular scene.
By The Numbers Script
One major example of the script’s complete lack of remembrance of past details is introduced early on. Due to Sarah’s agoraphobic nature, patrons of the house are told to stay within their own rooms/selected portions of the mansion during the day. In order to help with the stilted communications during these periods, we are shown that each room is installed with tubes, which connect to each room. This is a pretty obvious setup for something to occur later on, it’s actually offensive how poorly the eventual payoff blows this opportunity to do something neat with this unique delivery system.
All this used for is to simply insert another jump scare, in the form of a withered finger coming out of one of the tubes, just as Jason Clarke’s head nears it. Not only does it not invoke any of its intended feelings, but it ends up feeling like a gag we’d see in a sex comedy, like a bad glory hole joke we’d see in one of the direct to video American Pie sequels.
This fumbled payoff speaks to the thematic content too, as its vague anti-gun message is completely wrecked by the fact that the day is saved by guns, which is an outright contradiction of its faint theme, one which should feel topical, but feels just as antiquated as the Winchester mansion’s furniture. Part of the added frustration comes from the narrative’s true story origins, one which transports the real-life tale of America’s supposedly “most haunted house”, removes any uncertainty that might make rendering this plot for the screen interesting, and instead supplants it with the plot of Collateral Beauty (bizarre, I know) and a ‘bad guy’ ghost who wants to kill Sarah for genuinely questionable reasons.
The Spierig Brother’s latest “based on a true story” horror movie Winchester is a cinematic checklist of every dreadful ‘haunted house’ cliche, every formulaic competent that’s been implemented by other, better genre entries. It’s legitimately insulting that these directors, who once made the original genre pieces Predestination and Daybreakers, actually thought this was good enough to release into theatres globally, in a market where smart, skillfully layered independent films fight daily to be seen by a tenth of the audience that this trash will receive.
If you thought that the jump scares in last year’s remake of IT were unpleasant, then you haven’t seen Winchester, the embodiment of pedestrian storytelling, wielding the boisterous jump scare as its only blunt weapon to ‘frighten’ you with. This isn’t funny-bad, this is just outright atrocious, the ultimate disgrace to the beloved horror genre, Australian cinema and the real Sarah Winchester, whose interesting story has just been reduced to this forgettable waste of valuable resources.
What are some of your favourite haunted house films? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!
Winchster was released in the USA and UK on February 2, 2018. For all international release dates, see here.
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