As far as obligatory first-quarter, pre-awards season, low-budget horror movies go, Winchester’s not completely unwatchable. That said, there is a reason it got dumped on Super Bowl weekend. It’s certainly not without some major faults, but it does manage to pack some credibly creepy atmosphere and something approaching originality into its mercifully brief running time. When I say “originality,” I am by no means saying that this film reinvents any cinematic wheel — but at the very least it’s not based on a pre-existing intellectual property, and it takes its somewhat limited story and extremely limited characterization in directions that, while not as byzantine as the house that inspired its story, still lead somewhere unexpected.
It’s not the premise that manages to surprise — the story of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), widowed heir to the Winchester Repeating Rifle fortune and 51 percent owner of said company, whose guilt over the lives taken by its products drives her to what an objective observer would justifiably call madness. It’s nothing if not predictable, at least in this type of movie. Similarly, the role of Jason Clarke’s Dr. Eric Price as that rational (if not quite objective) observer does nothing to significantly shift the narrative course, as he’s tasked with deeming insane a woman who has placed her palatial home under perpetual construction in order to trick the ghosts she believes to be haunting her — which frankly, seems like a bit of a layup from a psychoanalytic perspective. No, the surprise here is that Winchester might secretly be a comedy.
It’s Victorian Gothic by way of James Whale or William Castle, and Winchester bears more than a passing resemblance to J.B. Priestly’s The Old Dark House — a novel adapted for the screen by both Whale and Castle, something not likely to be coincidental. Buried beneath the perfunctory PG-13 jump scares is a satirical note that becomes increasingly difficult to overlook as the performances become broader and the storylines strain credulity to the breaking point. Mirren and Clarke appear to be in on the joke, with Clarke, in particular, seeming to take a subversive glee in his hammier moments.
Co-directors the Spierig Brothers are far from effective as visual stylists, but they may have accomplished something of moderate note in their script with Tom Vaughn. The film touches on the perennial argument over gun control, but does so in a way that is either catastrophically tone deaf and ill-timed, or is intentionally contrived to highlight its own inherent ridiculousness. So Winchester can be seen as either a spectacularly dumb and thoroughly uninventive piece of junk or an epic trolling of fans of unsophisticated cut-rate horror and gun control debaters alike. I, for one, prefer to ascribe to the latter view.
Is Winchester worth watching? Of course not — there’s a reason that it finished third at the box-office behind a movie that’s already been out for almost a month. Is it a film that I’m likely to remember anything about by this time next week? Again, no. Am I reading too much into this thing in the hopes of rendering it more interesting than it really is? Quite possibly, but sometimes you have to make your own fun — and in the case of Winchester, the only fun you’re likely to have is that which you make yourself. Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements.
Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.