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Feature


On an isolated stretch of land outside of San Francisco, there sits the world’s most haunted house. Seven stories tall with hundreds of rooms, the house has been under construction for decades. But heiress Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) is not building for herself, for her niece (Sarah Snook), or for the troubled doctor (Jason Clarke) she has summoned. She is building it as an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

 Winchester
Australian indie directors Michael and Peter Spierig have a spotty and short record making high-concept horror and sci-fi films. Their first three releases, Undead (2003), Daybreakers (2009), and Predestination (2014) represented a steady incline in the quality of their characterizations, sense of drama, and visual prowess. Neither Undead, a plucky zombie comedy with a charming alien subplot, or Daybreakers, a dystopian action thriller about a world run by vampires, managed to completely gel, but Predestination, a noir-tinged time-travel love story, promised a more successful blending of concept and storytelling for future work. Well, that was until the Spierigs took on Lionsgate’s dormant Saw franchise for a disappointingly non-descript sequel/reboot called Jigsaw (2017). However, Lionsgate also helped the Brothers to distribute their film about the historical Winchester Mystery House, which the duo had been developing during the interim. One could, it seemed, safely assume that that film, titled simply Winchester, would be a more personal and, thus, interesting project.

Winchester (originally set to be titled Winchester: The House that Ghosts Built to avoid confusion with the television series Supernatural) doesn’t fit the high concept pattern I had hoped the Spierigs would stick to throughout their career (I believe there was discussion of a werewolf movie set on the moon at some point?), but its Gothic-infused, costume drama trappings are a new leaf for the duo. Between this and Jigsaw, it seems that the Brothers are trying to broaden their commercial viability by engaging in more recent horror trends (if you look closely enough, there is high concept potential in the idea of a gun-profiteer’s widow building a house to hold the ghosts of the people killed by her husband’s family’s weapons, but that is beside the point here). Period-set haunted house and possession movies are unmistakably hot, thanks to James Wan’s Conjuring and Insidious franchises. As someone who continues rooting for the Spierigs and who hasn’t been blown over by any of these recent haunting/possession movies, I feel like I’m in a prime spot to appreciate their take on the formula. I also know very little about the Winchester House’s actual history, so there’s little chance of any ‘inaccuracies’ bothering me.

 Winchester
Unfortunately, there isn’t much to chew on here. Winchester is so by the numbers and generally underwhelming on a narrative and conceptual level that it’s difficult to muster a critical emotional response for or against it. It’s distressingly uneventful and glacially-paced, despite its short, 99-minute runtime and minimal plot. Worst of all, its scares are distressingly hackneyed and erratic. There’s little sense of originality or consistency to the set-pieces and ghost designs, and the completely unearned jump-scares start cropping up almost immediately with little lead-in or prep (characters walk into each other around corners so many times that it becomes comedic). On the better side of things, Winchester is an exceedingly attractive movie. The look takes the theatrical ‘reality’ of a PBS/BBC Victorian drama and punches it up with just a touch of artificiality to match the Brothers’ other films. The few times scares actually work, they tend to rely on the absurd, yet ‘realistic’ construction within the house (twisting corridors and stairwells, lowered ceilings, et cetera) and how lovingly the sets/locations are photographed. The Spierigs never push this arcane architecture angle far enough to fully separate their movie from its James Wan-directed competition, but it looks better than its most generic counterparts. The cast is also uniformly quite good and committed to their characters, as they try to surmount the lacklustre quality of the script (co-written by the Brothers and Tom Vaughan). The further the story devolves into nonsensical morality play territory, the more commendable their efforts seem.

Video


I can’t find camera specs for Winchester, but, going on the last couple Spierig releases, it’s pretty easy to assume that it was shot using Arri Alexa digital cameras. The directors and their usual cinematographer, Ben Nott, follow typical Hollywood film language to convey ‘period’ – desaturated colours, an emphasis on sepias and gray/blues, and soft long shots – and blends them rather effectively with conventional horror imagery – dark corners, highly contrasted elements during close-ups, and diffused, dusty lighting schemes. They keep the compositions busy and minimize their editing, so there’s plenty of time for the audience to focus on the edges of the 2.40:1 frame and this 1080p transfer is sharp and clean enough to enjoy all intended aspects. If anything deliniates the photography from its nearest competition, it’s the fact that important elements are consistently well-lit, despite the aforementioned darkness. This cleanliness occasionally creates that artificial quality I discussed in the Feature section. At the same time, there’s just enough digital grain to punch up the overall texture without overwhelming the clarity. The darkest shots, most of which are meant to be melancholic, rather than creepy, are occasionally muddy and there are a few jittery, haloed edges, but I didn’t notice any issues with blocking or banding.

 Winchester

Audio


Winchester is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. I guess Lionsgate saves their DTS:X money for their biggest A-listers. The mix meets the standards of other modern ghost stories, from broad dynamics to subtle, spooky atmospherics. Pinpointed effects spring from the gloom at key moments, but it’s really the ambient noise that surrounds them that becomes the track’s key components. Wind effects, for instance, have an impressive lyrical quality. The centered dialogue is always discernible, even when otherwise overwhelmed by gunshots and ghostly mayhem. Peter Spierig pulled triple duty by supplying the musical soundtrack, as he did for Predestination. The music doesn’t make much of an impact melodically, to the point that it’s often hard to discern from sound design, but it does a good enough job setting a mood, while utilizing the stereo/surround field well.

Extras


  • Driven by the Spirits: The Making of Winchester (22:14, HD) – A typical EPK featurette with cast & crew interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and a brief look at the historical Winchester House.
  • Trailers for other Lionsgate releases


 Winchester

Overall


I suppose one has to give the Spierig Brothers some credit for trying, no matter how awkwardly, to turn their by-the-numbers haunted house movie into some kind of pseudo-anti-gun parable, but that’s about as close as Winchester gets to innovation (and the parable makes zero sense by the end of the movie, anyway...). I truly hope that the Spierigs find a more interesting outlet for their visual creativity in the future, because their last two films for Lionsgate (this one and Jigsaw) have been very disappointing. The Blu-ray looks and sounds about perfect, but only features a solitary EPK featurette and trailers.

 Winchester

 Winchester
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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