Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle


Grade : B Year : 2018 Director : The Spierig Brothers Running Time : 1hr 39min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

Haunted house horror is almost my favorite type of horror film…I think. My favorite horror film resides in that genre (Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”), and I love the ideas of haunted houses, and the evocative dread they can contain. And the Spierig Brothers (“Jigsaw”) have one with tremendous potential in the infamous Winchester House, built by Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), who owned the Winchester Rifle company after her husband died. But, while the Spierigs have a great sense of atmosphere with this evocative setting, this checks every haunted house box without really getting an emotional anchor in place for the film.

It’s kind of surprising that Mirren hasn’t been asked to headline a horror film yet, but maybe it’s because most horror films don’t have protagonists such as Sarah Winchester for older actresses to dig their teeth into. The script by the Spierigs and Tom Vaughn is about as by-the-numbers as it can get for the genre and this story, so it’s up to Mirren and the rest of the cast to breathe some life into it. The thrust of the story comes from the Winchester company hiring a psychiatrist (Jason Clarke) to come to the house and evaluate Ms. Winchester, a widow who is mourning not only her husband’s death many years earlier, but the death of her young daughter, and see if she is of sound mind to continue to control the company. Her talk of spirits in the house, her constant renovations to the house, and other oddities in her behavior have them skeptical, and Clarke’s Dr. Eric Price, himself haunted by loss, is to find out the truth of her madness.

All of that is an intriguing hook for a horror movie, but the film feels like it intends to just check boxes than come up with an original take on the material. The way the Winchester house is under constant construction, with rooms built and broken down constantly, should give a filmmaker plenty of great material for not just a fine haunted house film, but maybe the finest haunted house film. If the layout of the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining” has given you fits of curiousity, the Winchester House is that times 100, but it just doesn’t feel as though the film takes advantage of its setting the way you would hope. This shouldn’t just resort to familiar tropes of spirits and disturbed children, but it does. There’s a compelling subtext here involving the morality of building a fortune off of making tools of war and violence, and guilt that might come from that, and it’s what elevates the film to its status as an average, but interesting, genre entry. Sadly, that’s about the only thing that does.

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