'Winchester' presents an unusually upfront ghost story [Review]

Helen Mirren in Winchester

On Feb. 2, CBS released the new ghost movie Winchester. Based on a true story, it follows the widow of Winchester Repeating Arms Company majority stockholder Oliver Winchester.

After the death of Oliver and their daughter, Sarah Winchester was said to have contacted a spiritualist to inquire why her family members kept dying. As the story goes, Sarah was informed that the souls of people killed by her husband’s rifles were haunting the Winchesters. In an effort to mitigate the ghost’s attacks, the widow set about building an ever-growing and changing maze of a house until she passed away. Her home still stands outside of San Francisco, where it hosts visitors throughout the year.

The particulars of Sarah Winchester’s life and state of mind are up for debate. However, this film is at least superficially based on true events. It does not take long though for the movie to fall into conjecture and then outright imagination. Fascinatingly, Winchester does not leverage the doubt card at all. Almost immediately, it embraces the idea that ghosts are real, present and unabashed in their appearances. While this tactic is refreshing in a way - few movies are quite so upfront - it seems counterproductive in this instance. When you have talent like Helen Mirren playing Sarah Winchester, it would make sense to leverage her skills to keep the audience in suspense. Sadly, the flick thoroughly lacked edge-of-your-seat moments, scares or twists.



Winchester’s power is in its cast

As the film unfolds, it feel as though one cannot fault the cast of Winchester for lack of power in delivery. In this instance, the whole feels a touch lesser than the sum of its parts. This movie had the benefit of the “true events” angle and a solid storyline to build from. As it translated to the screen, the entire production felt reminiscent of a gothic stage play, with acting to match.

Helen Mirren put in a characteristically solid performance along the way. The psychiatrist sent to evaluate her (Jason Clarke) and her niece (Sarah Snook) both turned in strong portrayals. Even the young Finn Scicluna-O'Prey held his own throughout the movie. Each actor seemed to tow the line with performances that, while bordering on overacting, felt appropriate to the style.

The set, costumes, makeup and cinematography were well-executed, though not revolutionary.

In total, Winchester should have been a knockout flick. It was entertaining and worth seeing. However, it is missing the kick one expects from such great ingredients. Audiences left feeling as though perhaps it was too upfront. Rather than letting the audience make their own judgments, or use their imagination, it spelled everything out clearly.

The good news is that viewers do not have to wait long for the action to start. However, a touch more suspense, or moments of subtlety would have launched Winchester into a whole other level.

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