The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



How do you take an utterly fascinating true story and turn it into something dull and predictable? See Winchester to find out the answer to that question. The movie is based on a real person -- Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. She is alleged to have believed that the angry souls of people killed by the rifles her family manufactured haunted her California mansion. To that end, she spent 38 years adding additions to the mansion to contain those spirits. Why anyone would make this movie with that premise is a mystery for the ages.

Helen Mirren plays Sarah, and Jason Clarke is Eric Price, a doctor brought in to assess her mental health in order to ascertain whether she's competent to continue running the company. Price is immediately informed that the mansion is “like a maze,” with rooms illogically adjoining one another, hidden passageways in the walls, and stairs that lead nowhere. At first, he's not sure whether Sarah is eccentric or crazy. After he witnesses some unexplained paranormal phenomena, including the seeming possession of the young son of Sarah's niece, he decides she might be perfectly sane. Then one particular ghost with an ax to grind shows up.

There are two deeply riveting elements to this story: Sarah Winchester and her mansion. Winchester is more interested in the doctor and the kid. Those things allow for a lot of standard jump scares – although one, involving a mirror, is admittedly a doozy – that put the film squarely into heavily fictionalized horror territory. A psychological case study of Sarah would actually have been more frightening. If the tales were true, this woman was so wracked with guilt over what her family's rifles did that she came to believe spirits were coming for her. We want to know how this belief originated and how it impacts her psyche. Instead, the film is told from Price's POV as he gradually comes to think ghosts might be real, while also dealing with his own formulaic personal tragedy.

On a similar note, there should be a lot more of the mansion. What you have here, with those secret passages and more than 100 weird rooms, is a unique setting for a movie, yet Winchester barely takes advantage of it. What could be more disturbing than the literal creation of a person driven mad? For the most part, we're only given glimpses of the structure, which is simultaneously frustrating and unsatisfying. One can't escape the feeling that the film would be vastly more enthralling if it made the house much more of a character in its own right.

Sibling directors Michael and Peter Spierig (Jigsaw, Predestination) certainly deliver a handsomely-mounted production. Winchester looks great, creating a visual atmosphere that sets the right tone, even if the plot doesn't follow through. And of course, Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke are quite good. I cannot recall a time either of them was anything less than magnetic onscreen. Mirren, in particular, has the talent to dig deep into the mind of Sarah Winchester, so it's a shame that she doesn't get more of a chance.

Winchester isn't good, nor is it awful. It's the kind of picture you watch with your eyes glazed over because it's so mediocre. There is an extraordinary film to be made from the material. This isn't it. Despite the presence of ghosts, horror is probably not the right genre. Helen Mirren in a dramatic character study of Sarah Winchester? Now, that would be magnificent.

( out of four)

Winchester is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.

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