Scepticism is always healthy when a ‘based on true events’ title card introduces a horror film, a genre in which the relationship to the truth is usually strained. At its most honest, horror stretches the truth, and at its least it fabricates events entirely, but this doesn’t matter when everything works. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for Winchester, starring Helen Mirren (!), a film that pisses on the intriguing stranger-than-fiction tale of the eponymous Sarah Winchester by removing all subtlety in favour of jumpiness.
The real Sarah Winchester was the heiress to the wealth of the arms-dealing family she married into, who, following personal tragedy, led to believe that the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles haunted her California mansion. To dispel the ghosts, she used the (arguably) ill-gotten Winchester fortune to build endless extensions on her mansion, filling it with rooms designed to confuse and entrap her demons.
How the makers of Winchester managed to squander the atmospheric possibilities of this source material is astonishing; what is left is a formulaic jump-scare festival that side-lines any interpretation of Sarah’s complex emotional damage in favour of being jolty. Jump scares can be effective (The Descent, The Conjuring), but when they become the sole method of horror it smacks of laziness on behalf of the filmmakers. These scares, designed to illicit an immediate reaction, ruin any semblance of creepiness the film created. Having a CG ghost abruptly pop up every five minutes to go ‘BOO!’ becomes exhausting quickly; I found myself yawning between jolts, which, given the short runtime, is a depressing achievement in itself.
While the possibilities of adapting the fascinating ‘real life’ story are wide, Winchester’s cardinal sin is wasting something that could have been interesting, but instead stuffed every conceivable orifice with jump-scares in lieu of nuance, atmosphere and the creepy Gothic sensibility it deserves. Winchester stands as an excellent example of how not to make a ghost story, and is instead glacially paced and arbitrarily jumpy.
Truly inept horror filmmaking, and a career low for Mirren.