Movie review: Helen Mirren has fun as widow in black in horror flick 'Winchester'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Feb 04 2018 05:37 PM

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I have heard about the Winchester Mystery House located in San Jose, California known for its unorthodox architecture and its ghost stories. However, I had never had the chance to visit this place during the times I visited the West Coast in previous years. Even if there was zero buzz about this film, I welcomed the chance to get a peek inside the house. When I heard that Helen Mirren was the main star, I was sold. 

The year was 1906 in San Jose, California. San Francisco-based psychiatrist Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) was called in by the lawyers of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. to assess the mental health of their CEO, Mrs. Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). She had been obsessed about constantly building new rooms and sections to her house with no clear reasons, which caused concern among the members of her board. 

Upon visiting her house, Dr. Price began seeing frightful visions. At first, he thought that these were just illusions from his addiction to laudanum. However, when Ms. Sarah's grandson Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey), son of her niece Marian (Sarah Snook), was showing signs of possession by an evil spirit, Dr. Price needed to get his act together to help the Winchesters figure out how to fight back against the violently disturbed spirit of Cpl. Benjamin Block (Eamon Farren) who was determined to exact his revenge.

Despite the American topic, this was actually an Australian production. The film was written and directed by Austrailian identical twins Peter and Michael Spierig, billed together as The Spierig Brothers. I did not recognize the name right away, but I realized that I had seen one of their films before, "Predestination," which I liked. Just last year, they directed the 8th installment of the "Saw" franchise called "Jigsaw" which I was not able to see. Majority of the cast was also Australian, like Clarke, Snook and Farren, along with Angus Sampson (as Ms. Sarah's helper) and Laura Brent (as Ruby, Eric's wife).

Helen Mirren seemed to be having a lot of fun wearing her oppressively black widow's gown and veil, which she wore for the entire length of this movie. Her acting was on the hammy side and was actually quite amusing to watch. She somehow gave the impression that she was not taking this project too seriously, and that may be a good thing in this case. She knows her character had some over-the-top lines and scenes, so she wisely played her with tongue-in-cheek.

I know Jason Clarke mostly for his macho action films, like "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" (2014) and "Everest" (2015). Him getting jumpy, startled and freaked out as the tormented Dr. Price in this film must have been quite a fun change of pace for him. It was his character who went through a more complete story arc in film, and he did deliver, acting-wise. There was a remarkable detail in Dr. Price's life that was a nice little twist in the film which I appreciated. 

The only other film I saw Sarah Snook in was "Predestination." She was just limited to playing the concerned mother. Viewers of the rebooted "Twin Peaks" last year will recognize Eamon Farren. His character Block was given quite a back story behind his vengeful anger. Of course, Angus Sampson was the comic relief for all the "Insidious" films. Here, all he did nothing much but to hammer doors shut with 13 pieces of nails.

It did not have the Hollywood polish in terms of its cinematography and special effects. The scenes which were set at night or in darkness were too dark and were difficult to watch. The horror visual effects were quite basic, not up to present standards. A lot of the scares were jump scares brought about by sudden jolts of a ghostly face or a sudden blast of sound. 

While certain aspects of the story were interesting, the pacing of the storytelling was rather slow and tedious at parts. 5/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."