A movie nurtured by the co-writing and co-directing German-Australian ‘The Spierig Brothers’, Peter and Michael, this supposedly ‘Inspired By Actual Events’ supernatural drama feels like it should work, but somehow misfires.
One of the Spierigs’ personal projects (like their Undead, Daybreakers and Predestination, but not the director-for-hire Jigsaw), it’s a curiously unfrightening and uninvolving outing with quite a prestige cast and a jump-scare or two, but an odd lack of excitement or fear. It’s also coincidentally coming to cinemas as America’s gun laws are being hotly debated and, therefore, some of the talk of the horrors of firearms and a flashback to a massacre feel a little distasteful at the moment, although chances are any release date in the next few months — or years — would probably coincide with yet another appalling (and preventable) mass killing.
After an ominous nose around what eventually became known as the ‘Winchester Mystery House’ in San Jose, California (although that location posed all sort of problems for filming, so most of this was shot in Melbourne) back in 1906, we then meet the laudanum-addled, financially-troubled, emotionally-stricken, prostitute-friendly Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke). He’s approached by lawyer Arthur Gates (Tyler Coppin) and basically bribed into visiting the House and assessing the psychological well-being of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), whom the board members naturally want declared crazy, so they can lock her up and sell the place for big money.
Price, who’s given to hallucinations even before he gets to the Winchester abode, arrives there and meets Sarah’s widowed niece Marion Marriott, and she’s played rather well by Sarah Snook, whom Mirren (a fan of Predestination) personally requested to fill the part. Marion’s son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) is also a key player, as he starts sleepwalking dangerously through the corridors (and along the scaffolding) with a bag over his head, and exhibiting two signs of hokey filmic possession: milky dead eyes and a Freddy Kruger voice.
Dr. Price thinks at first that the strange and scary stuff he sees in the house are to do with his drugged and grieving mind, and there are some moderately effective scenes as he paces the bizarre seven-story place, ascending staircases to nowhere, opening doors that lead straight into walls and thinking he spots a succession of spooks. His scenes with Mirren’s Sarah are fairly compelling too, as she insists that the family is cursed and that the place is haunted by multitudes of ghosts of people who have fallen victim to the guns that bear the name of her late lamented husband William, and that somehow their communications from beyond have led to the nutty architecture of the constantly-under-construction House.
However, none of this is particularly creepy, and after too much build-up and exposition, the plot settles for a final act that involves a twist that you’ll see coming a mile off.
Simultaneously the Spierigs’ most elaborate (and surely expensive) film and their most disappointing, this is still probably worth persevering with for Mirren lovers, diehard devotees of paranormal pics and anyone who requires further proof that, in case they somehow hadn’t already realised, guns are, you know, bad.
Rated M. Winchester is in cinemas now.