Winchester (aka The 13th Hour / Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
While most placid poltergeist pictures based on haunted houses tend to have a shlocky nature that makes you question if the horror was humor, I find myself asking that question the hardest with Winchester. Here is a film the earnestly tries to spin a ghost tale featuring roller skate accidents and climaxes with possessed rifles floating in the air. Was it a comedy? If it was, it needs to go further.
Set in the San Jose mansion before the Great Earthquake of 1906, psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) has come to investigate and gauge the sanity of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). She’s heiress to the Winchester rifle company but there’s a questioning if she’s still well enough to maintain that title. Eric may not be the best judge given his drug addiction but it’ll make for some questioning hallucinations later. Something spooky is going on inside the mansion and it’s too bizarre to be all that scary. Most of the scariness involves the possession of a little boy who will flash glass eyes, launch himself out a window, branish a pitchfork as a weapon, and wield a rifle at old the Winchester elder.
All the familiar cheap and cash-grabbing filmmaking tricks of a quick horror production are present. Queue the laziest of jump scares meant to make us scared when we’re more just startled and annoyed, as though the film is trying to give us a mild shock to keep us awake. I suppose I should be frightened that a little boy with a bag on his head is shooting at an old woman but there’s just something so bombastically bizarre about the sight that I couldn’t help but laugh.
The story is nothing that hasn’t been seen before in tales of the supernatural. Eric doesn’t believe in ghosts but maybe he will once he starts seeing his dead wife hanging around the mansion. Sarah does believe in the spirits but isn’t prepared to face them. Not when they’re armed with guns! Somehow the solution turns into stocking the mansion up with even more guns, mostly so we can witness the absolutely hilarious sight of dozens of Winchester rifles floating in the air and choosing targets.
The performances are fine for this type of production. Clarke gives a standardly subtle role, making sure he never winks at the camera with all this lunacy, maintaining the stance of a man dedicated to his craft and driven mad by the life he once had. Mirren turns in a solid performance almost as if her main purpose was to baffle the audience that she’d appear in such a low-rent horror flick. And although the kid of the picture forced into cursed stances, he has a certain dignity for how he is treated as a mere vessel for hauntings, both from the spirits and the filmmakers.
Winchester is by no means a good film but dips so quickly into goofy territory in bounces up from the abyss of bad. It doesn’t quite go the extra mile to be an over-the-top horror movie that is so bad it’s good but it certainly comes close. I just wish it had enough faith to switch off the safety and turn into more of a quirky haunted house picture rather than coming off like a laughable attempt to gussy up the Winchester estate for the tourists.