The most novel thing about Winchester is that it’s Dame Helen Mirren’s first horror film (unless of course you count Kevin Williamson’s Teaching Mrs Tingle from 1999).
As Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester firearms company (who also make roller skates), Mirren brings a touch of class to this otherwise creaky ghost story “inspired by actual events”.
This grieving widow, shrouded in black lace, claims to be haunted by the restless spirits of those killed by the Winchester repeating rifle, and has constructed a labyrinthine house of seven stories and hundreds of rooms to accommodate the spectral multitude.
The company board are naturally concerned that she may not be of sound mind, and despatch Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to perform a psychological assessment.
Price, whose haunted past has spawned its own ghosts, as well as a laudanum addiction, begins seeing things as soon as he sets foot in “the house that ghosts built”. And before long, all hell breaks loose with the arrival of a vengeful spirit.
Winchester would have been more successful as a psychological thriller, raising the question of whether the paranormal activity is all inside the minds of the disturbed Sarah and Price. However, despite working with a solid premise, the Spierig Brothers (whose filmography includes the brilliant Predestination and the underwhelming Jigsaw) take a more literal approach, with possessed children, levitating rifles, and fingers extending from telegraph pipes.
Ghost stories are always more effective when they’re period pieces, and what Winchester does get right is favouring gloomy atmosphere and other gothic tropes over formulaic jump scares (although there are a few).
What’s disappointing is the missed opportunity of properly exploring the architectural monstrosity that is the Winchester House – a piece of unreal estate to rival the Overlook Hotel and Hill House. Aside from a few aerial shots and crazy camera angles in darkened hallways, there’s never a sense of getting lost in this malevolent maze.
Winchester is a great tourism booster for the real Winchester Mystery House in California, but as a supernatural horror film it’s mostly firing blanks.
In cinemas: February 22, 2018
Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook
Directed by: The Spierig Brothers