Looming around the center of brothers Michael and Peter Spierig’s most recent film, “Winchester,” is the all-too-familiar haunted house. It’s a sprawling city of a mansion, but the camera makes use of claustrophobia — the film moves with a labored familiarity. We turn corners with our surreptitious protagonist, Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), as he bumbles through the mansion, happening upon ominous secrets and disturbing visions. The owner of the house, Mrs. Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), is a widow and the heiress to the massive Winchester fortune, made from selling rifles. Sarah Winchester is consumed by guilt: She (accurately) states that she has derived her wealth from the widespread proliferation of death. She is convinced that the spirits of those murdered by Winchester rifles haunt her home, and she seeks to make peace with those spirits by constantly building rooms onto her house, either to give them places to make peace, or to lock them up if they are too ghastly.
The story is set in 1906, and the set design reflects a sense of stiff, early-20th century austerity. Butlers speak in hushed, forced tones; every step seems louder than the last. The house is large and looming from outside and like a labyrinth inside. The home constantly bustles with activity, which adds to the otherwise painfully dull scenes of Dr. Price sneaking through the corridors. The people who work around the house seem to hold an almost obsessive reverence for Mrs. Winchester, and her lingering guilt complicates their respect.
In one of the more striking scenes in the film, Dr. Price is able to see all of the spirits: men and women, all dusty, all dirty. At one point, Dr. Price looks into the face of a nameless (and, crucially, voiceless) young black man in chains. He is significant for two reasons: because he is the singular black face among the dead, and because his appearance is instrumental in the triumph of what the film supposes as good over evil. His silence turns his role as a specter of the past into a tool for the present, illuminating one of the major inconsistencies with the film. It seeks to stress the importance of reckoning with history, but fails to understand how the film itself is reckoning with history as well. The use of the ghost of the enslaved young black man rings dissonant because it is seemingly done without any thought. Here, the film employs the tired, played-out and altogether lazy trope of the ‘Magical Negro,’ relegating this black character to the scars on his back and his capacity to assist the protagonist in moving the plot of the story forward.
In this film, the stakes never feel high enough: Never does it elicit that twinge of anxiety about what is around the corner. Through hackneyed and heavy-handed foreshadowing, the plot mainly exposes backstory, and the film dangles the story ahead of you on a string. There is rarely biting tension, and the film could use it. “Winchester” sits precariously on the divider between thriller and horror, and it does nothing well enough to land on either side. The aesthetic qualities of the film suggest to the viewer a possibility of meditative thriller or macabre horror, but the plot and dialogue lack the thrust and staying power for the former, and the scares are too predictable for the latter.
The Spierig Brothers took a stab at some worthwhile pursuits: meditating on our connection to our sordid pasts, discussing our obsession with guns and mapping out the links between capitalism and gun violence. Unfortunately, the film falls flat, and the depth of the film is revealed to be smoke and mirrors.