Winchester (2018)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

In the early 1900s, an heiress named Sarah Winchester embarked on a massive undertaking, as she built and rebuilt rooms onto her mansion, playing with architecture and tricks of the light. Unable to discern her motive for doing so (mental illness or employment for local carpenters during lean years?), ghost stories arose, claiming she was attempting to 'thwart' spirits in the eerie labyrinth of her home. This has made the Winchester Mansion one of the most 'haunted' places in America and drawn tourists by the thousands. In a movie, of course, the ghosts must be real.

Semi-retired psychologist Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) does not believe in the supernatural, but in illusions and tricks. So when someone from the Winchester Arms Company asks him to visit the Winchester Mansion and assess the insanity level of its owner, he thinks this will be a quick and easy few days. He will give them the results they want (the "right" answer), pocket the fee, and go back home, where he can continue mourning his wife and drinking laudanum to his heart's content. When he reaches the peculiar house, filled with the sounds of round the clock construction, the recently widowed Marion (Sarah Snook) warns him that her aunt is a bit... eccentric.

Price thinks nothing of the odd atmosphere until he sees something in his room; he dismisses it, until he sees other, inexplicable faces around Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). As a malevolent spirit wreaks havoc on the house, he must confront his old demons and embrace the realization that some things in life are not illusions.

It pains me when a movie is a ghost of a much better story. I am not a huge horror fan, but I have seen the hair-raising Woman in Black and the intensely creepy The Sixth Sense, both of which are miles ahead of this film both in being terrifying and in exploring deeper ideas. This story knows not how to pace itself, introduce true suspense, or utilize Mirren. It has a slow start and relies on jump scares rather than intense psychological horror; I felt the story was told in the wrong way and should have focused on Sarah from the start. The plot twists are interesting but since I never emotionally invested in Price, I felt no real concern for his safety.

The house isn't used to its full impact; we see only a handful of rooms, so there's no sense of how enormous and claustrophobic the Victorian home is, although the exteriors are lovely. It has a lot of familiar elements (possession, ghosts wanting to harm the living, etc) and some great new ones (thirteen nails to seal lost spirits into their rooms, her recreating the rooms in which they died, Sarah's guilt over the deaths her husband's weapons have caused, etc). The costuming is solid and the servants suitably creepy, but it is not quite all it could have been, and that's a shame.

Sexual Content:
Prostitutes appear in one scene, reclined with a man and in the background (out of focus; one is topless but facing away from the camera).
6 uses of Jesus' name as an exclamation, a couple profanities.
Ghosts attack and try to maim main characters by causing an earthquake, shooting at them, and bludgeoning them with guns; we see flashbacks of people being shot and killed.

Ghosts 'channel' Sarah and possess a child; we see his eyeballs rolled back in his head / milky eyes and hear deep, guttural voices coming from him. Lots of 'jump scenes' with half-decomposed ghosts.