Helen Mirren in Winchester

As an admirer of Michael and Peter Spierig’s previous feature, Predestination, I had high expectations going into their latest, Winchester, which is now playing in general release. Predestination told a tricky, engaging tale that involved time travel and multiple identities; I hoped the Spierigs would create another fun puzzle narrative around the fabled Winchester mansion, a former farmhouse that owner Sarah Winchester transformed, through constant renovations between 1886 and her death in 1922, into a multi-story building with mazes and secret passages. Yet the film fails to generate much sense of mystery about the house. The brothers race through scenes of the characters exploring the mansion when they should be slowing down the film to build atmosphere. Moreover, the routine ghost story that the Spierigs spin doesn’t take full advantage of the environment either.

The film takes place in 1906, and one of the pleasant things about Winchester is that it doesn’t comment on the period, but rather treats it as a given. The filmmakers recreate the early 20th century handsomely, but they don’t suggest that human behavior was that much different then than it is now; this allows for an immersive and sympathetic view of the past. (Again, how dismaying that the Spierigs don’t spend more time exploring their creation.) When the story starts, the board of directors at the Winchester Company hires laudanum-addicted psychologist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to evaluate the sanity of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), who owns 50 percent of the company. Sarah’s devotion to her spooky mansion has raised alarm, ditto her proclamations that the estate is haunted by victims of Winchester firearms. Price takes the case and heads to San Jose, where Sarah lives with her niece Marion (Sarah Snook) and Marion’s young son.

These early scenes engender fascination with the mansion, but the filmmakers quickly dash it once Price arrives there. Mirren gets to make something of an entrance, the Spierigs following her from her behind around a few rooms before introducing her head-on. Yet the actress doesn’t make much of an impression with her performance, which is as understated as the other players’. In fact Winchester is a weirdly muted film; the surface tone is somber and a little flat. Price never seems adequately curious about the mansion, nor do his interrogations of Sarah go very deep. (As for Snook’s character, she barely registers at all.) Mirren conveys a hushed reverence toward the estate that I wish the Spierigs had taken further; the actress seems too in control of herself, and her defenses of the character’s superstitions sound far too sane.

<i>Curse of the Demon</i>
Curse of the Demon

Watching Winchster, I thought of Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 horror film Curse of the Demon (aka Night of the Demon), which also centers on a psychologist investigating the paranormal. “Tourneur is attempting a rational apprehension of the irrational, examining not so much the supernatural itself but the insecurities it springs from and the uses it may be put to,” Dave Kehr wrote in his Reader capsule, pointing to the film’s moral complexity. Winchester hints at a deeper moral dimension when Sarah discusses her guilt over making money off instruments that have caused countless deaths. Yet because the Spierigs show the ghosts of shooting fatalities so early on in the film, one isn’t able to interpret the ghosts metaphorically. In other words, there’s not enough rational apprehension to make the film’s irrational elements truly haunting.

Another lesson of Curse of the Demon is that horror films gain from suggestion: the title figure famously appears onscreen only twice. In contrast, Winchester features more ghosts than you can shake a stick at, and top of this, they aren’t very scary; they have the same pale look and the same digitally heightened screams that one encounters in so many recent horror movies. Given the film’s expansive setting, it’s disappointing that the Spierigs, who have proven their capabilities elsewhere, would fall back on such boilerplate imagery. This speaks to Winchester’s overall failure of imagination—it’s the sort of forgettable movie that could have been a memorable one.