FIRST LOOK: Ghostly "Winchester" Induces Trembles, Misses Sustained Shivers

Updated 2 years ago by Tony Rutherford , HNN Entertainment Editor
FIRST LOOK:    Ghostly "Winchester" Induces Trembles, Misses Sustained Shivers
CBS Films

Spirit infested grounds and structures have been explored cinematically an infinity of times from "Old Dark House" to "Amityville" and "Paranormal Activities." 

"Winchester" spins legend around mystery exposing Sarah Winchester's (Helen Mirren spiritualist undertakings to remove a curse resting on the family that patented the rifle. The widow contends that every victim of a Winchester fired bullet has a grudge extending across the after-life that can only be exorcised by confronting family members that indirectly brought about their demise. 

Set in  the early 1900s near San Francisco, the widow lures unsettled spirits to the disorganized maze of a house for neutralization or confinement in rooms sealed by 13 nails. 

The lady controls the corporate fortune (think Microsoft in a prior century) and board members want her declared insane for financing 24/7 haphazard expansions, improvements and demolitions at the mansion in which one set of stairs leada to a ceiling , a door to a drop off, and a contingent of mazes and closets liberally sprinkled throughout. 

Taking the we've seen it before as a given, "Winchester" follows shadows , glares of candlelight, demonic forces around the endless maze. 

Told through the perspective of Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) , a forensic psychiatrist hired to 'evaluate' Mrs. Winchester's sanity. He has his mind made up until he spends night at the house.

Brotherly directors Michael and Peter ("Daybreakers") Spierig quickly introduce Insidious styled jump scares  --- a finger out of a wall, an errant skate, and a pitchfork weiding child --- betwixt the doctor's own preoccupation with teaching about illusion. We have a dueling set of mindgames spewing from the veiled heiress and the logic bestowed shrink. Awkwardly (she keeps questioning the 'doc') they each prevail upon the other to accept their 'reality.'

"Winchester's" non-sustaining supernatural stance allows the insertion of standard spooks galore as you the viewer ponder delusionally  imaginative depths . 

During the "curse" versus depressed grief mind battle, Sarah's  niece (Sarah Snook) whose child has eyeballs that swagger from  white ghoulish marble to lifelike) becomes a target of possession.  Without the lad's near  bring in an Exorcist sleep-walking death, the balance favoring  ghostly beings would be extinct. 

Anyone recalling the early episodes of "Dark Shadows" note that the Collinwood mansion contained progressively increasing hints of haunting. The labyrinth house fails to extensively startle (no jumps going down a staircase by candlelight) but the midnight bells ringing and haphazard mutilated spirits ignite seat rousing, just not often enough. 

During an interview Mirran describes the film as a Japanese styled ghost story. Although he character wears dark Victorian  veil as she meanders through the Hogwarts-like domicile filed with hallway after hallway of nailed up rooms. You wonder whether she's singing an "I ain't afraid of no ghosts" mantra or a paralyzed in past trauma. 

"Winchester" is a trembler , not a solid earthquake.  Constant construction pounding and unsolved mysteries hike blood pressure, but tension is not sustained. If not for the mostly boiler plate spiritual intrusions often executed with surprise precision, the film would be a nearly fruitless exploration of an eccentric woman's delusions. 

Still, viewers are on edge poised, such, in the words of an audience member, "I could have brushed  a feather against you during the movie , and you would have jumped out of your seat." 

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