The Bock’s Office: ‘Winchester’ a misfire of a ghost story
Most horror movies are bound to trigger some kind of emotional response, be it fear, excitement or anything else. In the case of “Winchester,” that feeling would be boredom.
In 1906, San Francisco doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is in dire straits financially and in need of a way to square away his debt.
The answer to his problems comes in the form of a representative from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, the board of which requests his help settling the matter of their majority shareholder, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren).
The widow of the son of the firm’s founder has become reclusive and spent millions building a massive mansion in San Jose, and her state of mind has the company men wondering if she is fit to handle the business.
Price reluctantly agrees to travel to the estate and assess her sanity, but immediately upon his arrival he begins to notice unusual happenings in the household, some of which can be explained away easily but others have even the logical doctor convinced that there is some great evil residing amid the living.
Mirren rarely gives a poor performance even given weak material, and here is no different. Clad in mourning attire complete with a black veil for nearly her entire time onscreen, she is utterly hypnotic as a lady steeped in sadness and obsessed with death, not just that of her late husband and daughter but also the spirits she believes have taken up in her house.
Clarke is likewise convincing in spite of a thin role as a man of medicine whose appetites for laudanum, liquor and ladies of the evening have left him penniless and willing to do anything. And, when you’re going through withdrawal, the inability to differentiate between your usual hallucinations and sinister specters in your bedroom must be hell.
Sarah Snook gives it her best but doesn’t offer much as Sarah’s fragile niece and fellow widow, Marion, whose son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) gets up to far more mischief than the average boy once the midnight bell chimes.
Admittedly, a glassy-eyed ginger kid speaking with a much deeper voice than he should have is going to scare anyone given the right circumstances, but the more you dissect this spook show, the less it has an effect.
At its peak, the infamous Winchester Mystery House stood seven stories with nearly 100 rooms with a layout that would bring tears to the eyes of any architect with a love for functional design. That’s because the woman of the house communicates with the spirits regularly and draws up new labyrinthine additions regularly to accommodate them with construction crews working around the clock for her questionable demands.
The house — note I didn’t say home — and its byzantine scheme sync up well enough with the Spierig brothers’ style, though the sibling filmmakers’ entry in the dull eighth installment of the “Saw” series last fall should have given you an idea that they’re not much for organic story flow.
There are too many subplots with loose ends, too many superstitions and too many throwaway screams for this to work as a full movie, even if a handful of the depictions of terror actually do make you jump.
There’s also a nagging need to piece together a moral in this shoddy puzzle, and that message could either be anti-gun or pro-gun — remember, we’re talking about a family that revolutionized rifles and firearms in general — but ultimately it’s aggressively neutral, so why bother dragging out that soapbox either way?
With the subtitle “The House That Ghosts Built,” the weak scares and weaker development of “Winchester” give it little firepower compared to horror directors that have a sense of how to utilize suspense.
But, if you consider a kid with a burlap sack on his head the height of fright, the Spierigs must be right on target with someone, anyway.
About a week ago I was rolling a bale of hay down past the loading dock of the corral so that I could throw hay over the fence. Right there in the path was some rhubarb. It isn’t that the rhubarb hadn’t been there before, but I thought it had died out during the drought. It isn’t easy to get water to that location. The rhubarb is nice and tender, and I’m determined to use it up before the stalks get tough. So I hunted up my rhubarb recipes.