The writer-director duo The Spierig Brothers tend to hit the same genre film sweet spot for me that Mike Flanagan’s work seems to for other people. They’re churning out formulaic genre pictures that do little to innovate in terms of visual craft or structural narrative, but still endear themselves to me despite my better judgement. Their vampire picture Daybreakers and (even more so) their time travel mystery thriller Predestination are clearly their most accomplished works to date, but I’m always at least intrigued by whatever latest project they have cooking, no matter how generic. I even allowed their involvement in the latest Saw sequel to trick me into revisiting that franchise for the first time in over a decade, God help me. The genre du jour for The Spierig Brothers is a haunted house horror with unearned pretensions of being a historical drama. You’d think that a period film starring Helen Mirren and “inspired by actual events” could elevate itself above the usual Spierig Brothers mold, but Winchester instead glides by as yet another by-the-books genre exercise from the duo, for better or for worse. Anyone looking for a show-stopping performance from Mirren or some historical insight into the troubled times of the real-life Mrs. Winchester are likely to leave the film frustrated. Instead, the Spierig boys bend those potentially extraordinary elements to their genre faithful will, delivering pretty much what you’d expect based on their past efforts: a well-behaved haunted house picture that somehow entertains despite its instant familiarity.
Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester, a wealthy 1900’s widow & heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune. Mirroring rumors of her mental instability in real life, her mental health is being questioned in the film by the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to drive her out of her business & her fortune. The lynchpin in their argument against her sanity is a bizarre mansion she keeps under constant, ever-shifting construction, another real life detail. In the film, the Winchester house is described as “a gargantuan, seven-story structure with no apparent rhyme or reason” to its design, an M.C. Escher-esque 3D jigsaw puzzle that requires construction crews to work 24/7 to keep up with Sarah Winchester’s instructions. Mudbound’s Jason Clarke co-stars as a laudanum-addicted doctor/alcoholic hired by the Winchester company to legally assess the widow’s mental health as a guest in her bizarre home. Since this is a PG-13 horror film instead of an Oscar-minded biopic, however, that investigation shifts to instead determining whether the unexpected spooky beings the doctor encounters there are laudanum-induced hallucinations or a collective of malicious ghosts. Spoiler: it’s ghosts. Once “the difference between illusion & reality” is broken down, the doctor and the widow team up to calm the house’s ghosts, for whom the widow builds an ever-expanding labyrinth of rooms for them to haunt & feel at home in. The usual balance struck in “the house that spirits built” is violently disturbed by a slowly-approaching supernatural event, something much more potentially catastrophic than a lost fortune or a laudanum addiction, two conflicts that fall by the wayside. It all wraps up pretty much how you would expect it to, with very few surprises along the way.
Judging by the weirdly unenthused response to Guillermo del Toro’s similar, but far more masterful Crimson Peak, I doubt many audiences will fall head over heels for this simplistic gothic horror throwback. You’d have to be really stoked about watching Helen Mirren glide down spooky hallways in Helena Bonham Carter drag to enthusiastically love this movie; any personal affinity for haunted house horror or real-life insight into the bizarre case of the Winchester house is not going to cut it on its own. This is a very talky, muted haunted house movie where two too-good-for-this-shit actors discuss at length the value of gun control and the practice of locking ghosts in boxes. Even for all its exploitation of a real-life tragedy & total waste of an Oscar-winning actor, however, Winchester at least has the decency to search for a moral center & a thematic point of view. The ghosts in the film are described to be “spirits killed by the rifle,” and Sarah Winchester’s agitated mental state is framed as guilt from profiting from gun violence, a theme that obviously holds modern significance (and, again, mirrors legends & rumors surrounding the real-life heiress). The way that theme expresses itself through machine-like jump scares, creepy possessed children, and endless exterior shots of a spooky house may not be the most morally delicate approach to adapting the Winchester story, but fans of mainstream horror should be well-accustomed to that kind of exploitative tackiness by now.
The Spierig Brothers did little to pay attention to how the genre tropes of a haunted house picture might distort or trivialize the story of a real-life widow with a tragic history of mental health struggles. Instead, they filtered the Sarah Winchester curio through a one-size-fits-all ghost story lens, with all the minor thrills, chills, and PG-13 kills that accompany it. It’s not likely to win over new fans to their genre-faithful, utilitarian brand, but it’s still a continuation of their pattern of making well-behaved, but surprisingly entertaining pictures out of formulas we’ve already seen repeated hundreds of times before.