WINCHESTER

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Michael and Peter Spierig

Stars: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Angus Sampson, Eamon Farren, Bruce Spence.

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San Francisco 1906. Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the eccentric widowed heiress to the repeating rifle company fortune, has been building a monstrous house. Built over a period of 38 years it is seven storeys tall with over one hundred rooms. It was continually extended with construction crews working around the clock. Sarah maintains that she is building the house as an asylum for vengeful ghosts, victims of the Winchester repeating rifle who may wish to inflict harm on the family. At the advice of a medium, she built the house to appease the malevolent spirits.

The board of the company fear doubt her sanity and fitness to lead the company. They send in laudanum addicted psychiatrist Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke, from Zero Dark Thirty, etc) to assess her mental state. The sceptical Price himself has financial troubles and is easily convinced to take on the task in exchange for his debts being cleared up. When he arrives at the sprawling house he also meets Sarah’s niece Marion Marriott (Sarah Snook) and her young son (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, and they all find themselves in danger from the spirits that haunt the house.

The Winchester home is supposedly the most haunted house in America and is one of California’s top tourist attractions. This rather dull supernatural horror film is based on truth, but one suspects that screenwriter Tom Vaughan (Unstoppable, etc) has taken generous liberties with the facts for dramatic purposes. The film does have an obvious anti-gun message, which gives it a certain topicality. However, much of the dialogue is wooden and cringe worthy, and the handling of the material fails to bring the indifferent script to life.

This is the latest film from German born filmmaking siblings Michael and Peter Spierig, who in the past have done wonders with their low budgets. They burst onto the scene with 2003’s Undead, which was shot in Queensland; and have since given us Daybreakers, a futuristic tale in which the world had been overrun by vampires; the ambitious but head scratching sci-fi time loop film Predestination; and 2017’s unnecessary Saw reboot Jigsaw. This is a generic and derivative B-grade horror film, although the Spierig brothers suffuse the material with a menacing atmosphere. This is fairly formulaic stuff with some jump scares and lots of creaking doors and loud noises that are meant to be scary. But it pales when compared to superior efforts like the original Amityville Horror and Poltergeist, and Victorian era horror films like The Woman In Black, the recent Crimson Peak, etc.

With Winchester the pair have been given a $.5 3million budget and they have made a little go far. Most of the effects were done in camera without the aid of an overdose of clever CGI. The labyrinthine house itself is a main character of the film, and kudos go to the Spierig’s regular production designer Matthew Putland for his impressive work. And the film has been handsomely shot by their regular cinematographer Ben Nott. The film was primarily shot at the Docklands studios in Melbourne, where the interior of the mansion was recreated on sound stages, with some location shooting in California and the Winchester house itself.

The biggest coup though was in landing Dame Helen Mirren for the role of Sarah Winchester. This is her first film shot in Australia since 1969’s Age Of Consent. Mirren has never made a horror film before, and here she seems confused by it all and looks disinterested. Dressed in black mourning clothes for most of the time, she cuts a striking figure, but delivers one of the most lacklustre performances of her career. This is a role that hardly stretches her, and it would have been better if she went for a more over the top scenery chewing performance. Clarke does better as the unsettled doctor, while Snook tries to make the most of her underwritten character. The supporting cast features a number of Australian actors, including Angus Sampson, Eamon Farren and Bruce Spence in small roles.

Overall though Winchester is a misfire and represents something of a wasted opportunity from the normally talented and interesting Spierig brothers.

★★☆

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