This post is a part of the Take Another Stab series, where the horror films I hate get a chance at redemption through an open-minded revisit. There will be blood. There will be spoilers.
I know what you’re thinking. I would be thinking it too if I saw this post. Unless you’re one of the people I’m about to discuss, then apologies in advance. Collective audiences agreed that Winchester was, in fact, not a successful film. So why am I talking about a movie that everyone knows is bad? Because there are people out there in this buzzing world that gave it the benefit of the doubt. I looked. I checked. We’re talking 4 or 5 star reviews. After six essays about movies I had ill feelings towards, I too was starting to see some of the treasures in the trash. After scrolling through three different streaming services, I landed on this 2018 supernatural action thingamajig and I was delighted at the opportunity. I first saw it in theaters with two buddies. One of them fell asleep. The other and I were mutually flabbergasted by what we witnessed. How could this happen to such a promising premise? The Winchester Mansion is an iconic historical home that’s coveted by legions of paranormal enthusiasts and tourists alike. The lore of Sarah Winchester and her curious penchant for continuous construction had reached dizzying notoriety. This was its big chance, its shining moment on the silver screen. And what did we get? Jump scares worthy of your local haunted house and a hollow shell previously inhabited by Dame Helen Mirren. Memory is foggy (still blaming that 2020 trauma) but I recall the climax better than anything. The evil ghost that wants to murder Sarah and her family raises up all these guns and shards of glass in the air like he’s fucking Neo. That just about did it for me back then. I told myself I would never have another reason to watch this bundle of ghosts, possession, curses, and guns. Look at me go.
About one hour and 39 minutes later
It’s really hard to tell a solid ghost story. I’ve tried. It hurts. That’s what makes the classics classics. They have the right amount of scares to be entertaining and fun but it’s the emotions that people really seek out. They want them stirred up. They want to feel bad, sad, grief, and relief. On paper, Winchester had a wide scope of downer emotions. We learn right away that Sarah is still in mourning for her husband and young daughter. We also learn that her niece just lost her husband. We also also learn that the doctor tragically lost his wife. Loads of people have died but nobody is selling the drama. No tears, no bursts of anger. No supremely weird or depressing monologues. Just matter-of-fact, business as usual interactions that didn’t signal change. The damn thing should have been shelved as a historical film at this stage, for the majority of the footage felt like a digitized walkthrough of the house. I had a better time admiring the wood flooring and antique furniture than investing in these people’s stories, mostly because there was a metric fuck ton of story to invest in. They’re so similar that they melded together like gravy and mashed potatoes. It became this lump that had no astounding resolution except survival. I haven’t talked about the ghosts yet. I have to digest that pile of mash first before I riff that trax. These Winchester ghosts were not the vibe. We get grotesque, in-your-face demon ghosts, not sallow, lurky Victorian ghosts. One of the goddamn things infiltrates the mansion as an employee! Then it goes on to possess a little boy who goes on a shooting spree. AND THEN it has the power to raise up inanimate objects. What are the ghost rules in this universe? Are these actually demons? Poltergeists? Why do they look so fucking scary with morphed faces and spooky contacts? I need a rubric.
Perhaps there was too much pressure on Winchester to succeed. Maybe there were too many opinions in the hat. It felt as if the movie itself was trying desperately to get to the finish line. Everything was pushed forward, pushed to your attention as soon as it could be, so they could move in with the next idea. But we, the collective audience, already know what’s wrong with it. Stiff performances, no sense of dread or suspense, etc. After much thought and judging, I think I figured out why those 4-5 star reviews exist. Those reviewers either A.) Don’t watch enough horror or B.) They’re attached to the actual house. So, so many reviews relayed how this movie was great because of the Winchester Mansion. They didn’t even mention the film at first. They just rattled off some trivia about the house and Sarah’s communication with spirits. One even said to tour the joint first before watching the movie. Their hearts were in the right place but their heads were nowhere near the screen I was watching.
So, what is something good I can say about Winchester? I liked how incredibly smart Sarah Winchester was portrayed. She chose the doctor for her evaluation because she knew that he had been shot by a Winchester rifle and technically died, making him THE ULTIMATE GHOST WEAPON because she somehow predicted that the evil ghost would show up when he visited? Sorry, I went off the rails there. But it’s a goofy movie! And everyone acted like this was the most serious thing in the world but the whole idea was ridiculous. I’m trying very hard here. I didn’t think Jason Clarke was awful. I think he walked that line of skeptic pretty straight the whole time. The scattered jump scares were the only jolts that kept you awake, even though they didn’t feel in place at all.
I’ve been working on this far too long. I’m past the point of being convinced that I’ve missed something in this film. That’s sort of a relief. The whole gist of this blog series was to revisit things I hate and see if my opinion has changed. That wasn’t the case here but that’s okay! I know I can reliably trust my gut and not oscillate wildly about awful, awful Rotten Tomato reviews. If you left one of those reviews, we can’t sit together at lunch anymore.
Until next time, thanks for taking another stab with me