It seems like the paradigm of horror fandom seems to be shifting. It seems to me that we’ve been so conditioned by the modern horror film that when something truly different and genuinely scary comes along, it goes by without a trace, leaving modern audiences unsatisfied. I was dumbfounded by the general reaction to both “It Follows” and “The Witch.” These are movies built on mood and atmosphere, and they are classically styled horror films. But after many years of movies in the genre full of torture porn, needless gore, and sweaty, untalented teenagers running around with a handheld camera screaming at a darkened room, movies that takes us back and use some classic styles and try to scare the audience is more and more important. I don’t know what that says about me as a horror fan, but I am being honest.
“Winchester” is definitely a movie that stands out in the genre because it doesn’t look like a modern horror film. It takes place in the early 1900’s. It’s a classic haunted house set-up. It’s got two great leads in Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke. The movie relies on the audience caring about the characters, so when they do end up in peril, the audience cares. Instead of merely brainstorming interesting ways to kill the characters before we even get to know them. We don’t get too many horror films like “Winchester” these days, which probably helped my shape my overall opinion of it. Yes, there are some “boo-scares,” and I got to say that by and large, they work pretty well. I usually find “boo-scares” to be lazy and obvious, but when they are done just right, they are affective.
“Winchester” tells the story of Sarah Winchester (Mirren), the wife of the famous William Winchester who founded Winchester guns. After losing her husband and their daughter in a small amount of time has left her in grief. Not only that, but Sarah begins to think that she is cursed as she begins to think that she is seeing the spirits of the dead who were struck down by Winchester firearms. To help these spirits cross over to the other side of life, her home is under construction around the clock, constantly building rooms, trapping spirits in those rooms, and allowing them to go to the next life. Then they rebuild the room for a different spirit and it goes along. Her home would eventually be dubbed the Winchester Mystery House, and is still believed to be one of the most haunted places not only in the United States but in the world.
Jason Clarke plays Eric Price, a psychiatrist who is hired by the Winchester Firearms board to determine whether or not Sarah is going crazy or not. Of course, Eric Price doesn’t believe in ghosts. Of course, he’s a troubled man suffering from a past trauma. Of course, by the end of the film, both of those sentences will leave Price satisfied as they are both connected to the mystery of the film. So yeah, there are some plot points in “Winchester” that you can teleplay basically from the beginning. But the work by Mirren and Clarke is so undeniably strong, that they make you believe in a story that is contemporary Hollywood. The rest of the cast is pretty solid too. It wouldn’t be a haunted house movie without a creepy kid getting possessed by ghosts, and Finn Scicluna-O’Prey does a good job transitioning between sweet and innocent and downright evil. Sarah Snook plays his mother; Sarah’s daughter and she does good work here in a role that would probably be a throw-away role in the hands of another actress.
One other dissenting aspect of the film is that there is some over-reliance on special effects. But those CGI moments are so fake-looking that it kind of takes me out of the film. If I can tell a scene is clearly made up of computer pixels, I’ll be fully drawn into the scare. It’s the same minor problem I had with “IT” s scares. Either put down enough money on the CGI to make it look more authentic, or drop it entirely for practical scares. I’d take make-up and mood over half-ass special effects work every day of the week.
But the good acting keeps you engaged. The scares that land keep you on your toes. The mystery keeps you guessing. And in a genre dominated by found footage, that is a welcoming miracle. This is the type of movie that makes me believe that horror hasn’t completely lost its way and if you have any love for the genre whatsoever, you should check this out. I wanted to get out of the house after more than twenty-four hours of snow, I wanted to see a movie. There wasn’t much playing close to me. I liked the actors involved so I decided to give “Winchester” a try, and I am glad I did. Perhaps my low expectations also helped me enjoy this movie more than most. It felt like a surprise, and I hope this is a movie that picks up traction by word-of-mouth. Here’s hoping that Hollywood learns the right lessons from this movie, the genre could sure use it.
FINAL GRADE: B