Movie Review: 'Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built'

Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke Wasted in Ghost Cliché Rehash

Movie Review: 'Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built'

Winchester is yet another silly ghost movie. Despite a cast headed by Helen Mirren, Winchester—subtitled as The House that Ghosts Built—skulks about re-enacting ghost tropes with bad lighting and cinematography, all building toward the same jump scares we’ve seen in every other ghost movie. How predictable are the jump scares in Winchester? All you have to do is remember the rule of three and you will not be surprised.

The Winchester family started the Winchester Repeating Arms company in the mid-1800s to remarkable success. Success, however, is not the word that Sarah Winchester (Mirren) would associate with her husband’s creation. The Winchester Rifle is an instrument of death, arguably the best ever invented, but you would have to be of an odd mind to consider that successful.

Though Sarah and her family enjoy the spoils of their family creation, she has the good taste to feel bad about it. However, when it seems that her grief is manifesting as a belief in ghosts and haunted goings on, executives at the rifle company decide that she is perhaps not well enough to continue as the head of the company. In order to assess Sarah’s mental health, they employ Dr. Eric Pierce (Jason Clarke).

Like any protagonist in a ghost movie, Dr. Pierce has a tragic backstory. Several years prior to the setting of our story, Dr. Pierce died…only briefly. Dr. Pierce was shot and nearly killed by his mentally ill wife, and this association with death is why Sarah Winchester allowed him to be the doctor to assess her well-being. Dr. Pierce travels to California and to Sarah’s bizarre mansion, which has remained under constant, 24-hours-a-day construction since the day it was built.

That alone might fit the definition of poor mental health, not to mention Sarah’s penchant for dressing in funereal finery at all times. But the kicker is the reason behind the constant construction: Sarah believes that she is building rooms to accommodate the dead victims of the Winchester Rifle, unable to finish their earthly business until they’ve had a conversation with Sarah herself.

Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built, is based in part on a true story. Indeed, Sarah Winchester did build one of the largest homes in California. She also did keep the home under constant construction for 38 years until her death in 1922. Why Sarah chose to build the house and continue adding on to it is unknown, and led to the speculation about mediums and ghosts, though such stories were never proven.

That should provide the basis for a pretty good ghost story, right? Unfortunately, Winchester isn’t a very good ghost story. Michael and Peter Spierig squander this story by repeating the same awful tropes over every other ghost story; a hero with a tragic backstory, rule of three jump scares, ghosts with nebulous powers that increase or decrease based on the needs of the story.

I won’t spoil the ending. I will only say that it may drive ghost fans a little crazy with its ill-logic. It irritated me, but by the end of Winchester, I wasn’t invested enough to care all that much. We’re talking about a movie that wastes both Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke, two terrific actors who do their best to class up and dress up the shopworn horror clichés that the Spierig Brothers have cobbled into Winchester. If I were upset about anything, it would be the wasting of these two fine actors.

Then there is the shooting style of Winchester, which is lifeless when it isn’t hard to look at. For reasons that I cannot explain, early scenes of Helen Mirren have a hazy quality that obscures Mirren’s face. It reminded me of the lighting tricks Barbra Streisand used to employ to make herself look younger on screen. Helen Mirren, however, has never demonstrated such vanity before, so I can either chalk it up to bad cinematography or perhaps projector problems, if I were inclined to be generous.

Because of Mirren and Jason Clarke, Winchester isn’t unwatchable; it’s merely unmemorable. The filmmakers waste two great actors and a pretty great premise. They even wasted the incredible house, which I read is far more elaborate than anything in the movie. In the actual house, there are windows covered by walls to other rooms, doors that open to walls of new construction, and staircases that lead to nowhere.

The production designers of Winchester should have had a field day with these odd production details, but instead, we get only a couple minor touches, including one staircase to nowhere and a closet that opens to a hallway. This may be due to the film’s limited budget, but if you are going to make this movie, you should make it right or don’t make it at all. Not making it at all would have been the way to go based on the result that is Winchester.

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Sean Patrick

I have been a film critic for more than 17 years and worked professionally, as a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association for the past 6 years. My favorite movie of all time is The Big Lebowski because it always feels new. 

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