★ / ★★★★
Touring the actual Winchester Mystery House is exponentially more fun than having to sit through this lifeless, boring, pedestrian film with nothing of value to offer. At least with the former, although you go through the house in a group with strangers, each of you is given a flashlight and nearly every room is worth looking into because it is almost completely shrouded in darkness. Creaky floorboards make you question whether moving forward would be wise. And despite the tour guide’s occasionally unnecessary explanations, such as a significance of a room or decoration, and obvious attempts to amp up the creepiness of the place, you can choose to allow your imagination fill in the gaps regarding the possible reasons why Sarah Winchester decided for her home to undergo construction twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Given the chance, I would like to sit down with directors Michael and Peter Spierig and ask about their inspirations for the project as well as what inclined them to tell the story the way they did. I suspect a lack of a convincing answer because the film is a hodgepodge of bad ideas and executions. It lacks a defined identity. For instance, it is deeply frustrating that the story takes place in 1906 and yet its approach to entertain is merely composed of jump scares, employing tired setups and played out placements of the camera. Thus, we know exactly when the scares will come and where. Had the writers, Tom Vaughan and the Spierig Brothers, really thought about their material, they would have come to the conclusion that the best way to tell the story is to start off as a serious period drama as horror elements creep in steadily. It requires elegance, finesse.
Early in the picture, it is emphasized that house contains several stories, numerous rooms, and curious hallways that lead to dead ends. Yet for some reason, the filmmakers fail to provide some kind of tour that is organic to the pacing so that we grow familiar with the layout of the place. So many horror movies, especially those that fall under the haunted house sub-genre, get this wrong. Or ignore it altogether. This torture to be endured, so unimaginative every step of the way, is no exception. It is actually worse because every image we see on screen looks like a piece of a set. Scenes are incredibly well-lit… when they shouldn’t be sometimes. At times getting it wrong on purpose is the right way to go.
It is important to establish a mental map for several reasons. First, it creates a connection between setting and audience—a sense of place imprints on the mind. Second, when the scares begin, and thus the action, we do not feel lost or confused with regards to where a character might be heading, what he or she might be planning in order to overcome a set of trials. Another reason is specificity. It is crucial that we come across details specific to the story being told. It helps to establish a memorable experience. Perhaps the best example is Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”
“Winchester” stars Helen Mirren as the widowed owner of the haunted house and Jason Clarke plays a doctor who is hired to assess Sarah Winchester’s mental state. Both performers are capable of communicating a range of emotions without uttering a word, but their strengths are not utilized here. These are dramatic actors who are forced to play dumb—they are given uninspired characters we have all seen hundreds of times. Eventually, I found I was actually rooting for the malevolent spirits simply because I wanted the movie to end already. Halfway through, it is apparent that those from behind the camera have already used up all of their cheap parlor tricks. Every scare is forgettable. Every single one.