[Review] ‘Winchester’ Is Good, Campy Fun

Comparisons are inevitable, but the Spierig brothers’ Winchester is not a poor man’s Army of Darkness. In fact, it’s not a poor man’s anything.

We open with an elegiac aerial view, overlaid by the title – Winchester – grainy and somber, like an old Hammer film. The Winchester house is labyrinthine and Mary Ann (Sarah Snook), one of the residents, is awakened in the night by footsteps. She follows them, of course, and spookiness ensues.

Her aunt is the matriarch of the household, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), who famously spent the last half-century of her life adding new rooms to what began as a medium-sized mansion. And she has good cause to do so: For a number of reasons, which I will not spoil, she sees dead people, and they’re rarely happy. The house is a means to contain them.

Our vehicle into the haunted world of Sarah Winchester is doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) who has been hired to assess the “mental state” of their primary shareholder, as her extracurricular activities of late have raised concerns about her continued competence to run the arms company. He moves into the haunted mansion as he carries out his work and, as before, spookiness ensues.

The advertising department has not done Winchester justice. The film I saw in theaters this evening was a cross between an old Roger Corman haunted-house flick and The Evil Dead – filtered, of course, through a team of studio execs with an eye on keeping the proceedings safe for the whole family. Which is to say: It’s pretty good.

As with Jigsaw, the Spierig brothers’ previous outing, the film is nothing if not safe. No serious artistic risks are taken, and no serious rewards are reaped. But it is competent, and mostly confident, and the results are thoroughly enjoyable.

Other reviews, I am sure, will latch onto the rather hackneyed subtext: Mrs. Winchester is the wife of that Mr. Winchester. Her fortune was “forged in blood.” As the head of a successful arms company, she “profits off of death.” Lest we miss the social commentary, Helen Mirren make sure to voice such concerns every 15 minutes, like clockwork.

As such, it’s worth paying lip service to the film’s moral center: If there are ghosts who walk the earth, no small constituency thereof met their end on the wrong side of a gun. And America has a multitude of guns – a fact which swells some hearts with pride and strikes others as no small part of why we rarely make it through a month without a mass shooting. Some critic, somewhere, will probably say that “America is the house that ghosts built,” and drop the mic, and go to bed feeling virtuous (and clever). I joke, but they’ll have a point. We are haunted, like the titular Mrs. Winchester, by the culture of death we have created together.

Subtext aside, though, the film is good fun. And refreshingly so. At its weakest, its grandiose pretensions lay bare its cracks in the asphalt. But when it isn’t trying its hand at period melodrama, it stands out as a good-humored throwback to the films we grew up watching on dreary Sunday afternoons.

I had fun at Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built. I hadn’t hoped for anything more. If, like myself, you were put off by the trailers, which paint the film as a relentlessly stupid knock off of the Insidious franchise, then you’ll be pleased, like myself, to find that it’s quite nearly the opposite.

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