You’d be surprised to know this, but CBS Films don’t have a lot of faith in Winchester, their Super Bowl Weekend release. That’s despite the fact that it boasts an impressive cast (Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, and Dame Helen Mirren fill out the roster), decent talent behind the camera in the form of the Spierig Brothers (who previously surprised me last year with the mildly entertaining Jigsaw), and a location that’s amongst the creepiest in American haunting lore: The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose.
Anybody who’s ever seen that house in person knows how deliriously creepy the architecture is, all rooms and spires jumbled together in an unplanned assemblage, and the ethos behind it — that Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester Repeating Rifle Company’s fortunes after her husband’s passing, built specific rooms to placate the specters of those who died by the weapon that bears her family’s name. It’s not nearly as bad as it’s dump-off status might indicate (and it didn’t screen for press as well, which is a normally a decent indicator of the film’s quality), and is decently entertaining.
Clarke plays Eric Price, a laudanum-addled doctor and prostitute-galavating raconteur who is haunted by the death of his wife years prior to the start of the film. One fateful evening, he’s tasked by a member of the Winchester board to perform what amounts to a circa 1906 wellness-check on Sarah Winchester (Mirren), as a way of potentially undermining her sanity in order to swipe her 51 percent of the company out from under her. Price agrees, and heads out to her odd mansion, where builders work on the structure day and night, and is astonished by the layout of the mansion once he arrives. He meets her niece (Snook) and her child, who are both suffering in the wake of a tragedy of their very own, and Price sees that the child is… not well. Slowly, Price begins to dig into his evaluation, and nearly immediately assumes that Winchester is off of her rocker, until a particularly powerful spirit inhabits the house and causes Price to re-evaluate everything he knows about life, death and the afterlife, as well as his own connection to the ghosts in the house.
The Spierigs, who peaked with their 2015 Robert Heinlein adaptation Predestination, are reliable enough at what they do to ensure that the film is both watchable and somewhat engaging — there’s one terrific scare early on involving Clarke and shaving mirror that made my audience yelp — but the film is mostly a quiet and jolt-free affair, though one not without its own thematic resonance. There are a couple of brilliantly effective shots furthering this point, including one where Clarke is surrounded by ghosts of people killed by the Winchester Repeater that goes out of its way to show the victims of 19th century American Imperialism, but that’s all undermined by a deeply silly third act, in which the film becomes more of an advertisement for its weapon of choice than one would imagine.
Still, there’s enough creepiness here in the location to keep visual interest, and Clarke, Mirren, and Snook do well enough to ensure that the emotional beats land. You’re not going to remember Winchester in a month’s time, as it’ll wash away like most of the latter-day Hammer Horror tributes (a notable exception to this being Del Toro’s Crimson Peak) when confronted with something truly notable, but it’s well-crafted and acted, and is a significantly more compelling Super Bowl weekend treat than Boogeyman was some thirteen years ago.