Anyone who lives in northern California is aware of the Winchester Mystery House, the house once owned by Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The house, now a popular tourist attraction, has cultivated an air of mystery, with its presumption of being the most haunted house in the world finally being translated to film (surprised it took Hollywood this long). The finished product, Winchester, should do a lot towards enticing people to visit the San Jose house by presenting the location as a gimmick for a generic horror story. In fact, Winchester is let down by the mythos that surrounds the creation of the mansion itself, saddled with living up to a haunting history that might have only existed in Sarah Winchester’s head.
In 1906 Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is tasked with assessing the mental state of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the majority shareholder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Sarah believes her house is haunted by the souls of those killed by her husband’s company, known for making the Winchester rifle, and that in order to appease them she must keep building, day and night, the massive mansion she lives in. Dr. Price, a man haunted by his figurative demons, is skeptical, until strange things begin to happen.
It’s best to go into Winchester cold because much of what’s made the legend endure is hearing about the madness that doomed Sarah Winchester to endlessly build. Whether the house is truly haunted or not is irrelevant; the story compels because of the terror elicited from a woman who found herself plagued by restless souls. The story isn’t necessarily, “Was Sarah Winchester haunted by literal ghosts” but, “Was she driven mad by guilt?” Winchester, for its part, alludes to these two dichotomies while firmly saying literal ghosts haunted her.
Directed by the Spierig brothers, who helmed the cerebral Predestination and the less cerebral Jigsaw, set up a movie that hearkens back to psychological horror films of the ’60s and ’70s, with Clarke’s skeptical, laudanum-addicted doctor conjuring up comparisons to the Hammer horror films of the era. These references lead the audience to believe the film will focus on the psychological horrors of Sarah Winchester, and the question of whether she’s insane. This ambiguity is even meant to tie in to Price’s own deranged wife, whose memory haunts him. All of this could have created an effectively ambiguous psychological horror feature in the vein of The Sentinel. But the arrival of the first jump scare loudly proclaims Winchester isn’t interested in anything passing for nuance.
Like other Blumhouse productions not associated with James Wan, Winchester mines the horror handbook for everything you’ve come to expect from a horror film with their logo attached: creepy faces in mirrors? Check. A small child possessed/followed by a demonic entity? Check. Shockingly, the scares themselves seem tired, as if they know they’re expected to be there. Thus the few ghosts that actually manifest look heavily CGI and benign. The PG-13 rating removes any traces of blood or gore, which is surprising considering the film’s central business is guns – heads are blown cleanly off-camera. A dash of blood here and there might have at least given the film’s drab, gray color palette a boost.
The actual ghosts have zero personality. There isn’t a Nun or a Baguul-esque figure to launch a franchise on. That’s refreshing as much of what makes the Winchester legend fascinating is the countless people killed by the Winchester rifle, namely Native Americans. However, the majority of people supposedly killed by the Winchester rifle, or who at least visit the house, are white. The villain of the movie, a ghost so unmemorable his name is Ben for crying out loud, is a Confederate soldier who we’re apparently supposed to pity.
Mirren is admirable as the incredibly sane Sarah Winchester. Instead of a frightened woman plagued by demons, seen and unseen, Mirren gives us a character so close to Lin Shaye’s medium character in Insidious as to be a distant relative. Mirren’s Winchester is confident in what she’s seeing. Though it’s mentioned that she consulted spiritualists, as the real Sarah Winchester did, Winchester goes so far as to say Sarah Winchester WAS a psychic, right down to telling Price about his dead wife’s thoughts from beyond. The film even goes so far as to create a narrative wherein Sarah acts as Tangina-like figure – for all you Poltergeist buffs – helping the dead cross over. There’s little fear in her character from the beginning, so when the big bad arrives it’s unclear how he differs from the other ghosts, just that the script says so.
The film’s title is Winchester, but the entirety of it is Clarke’s to carry. He has some solid moments with Mirren but he is the eyes through which the audience watches her journey. His guilt over his wife’s suicide is interesting, but, because no one is allowed to be normal in this film, his own three-minute death makes him “special,” to both Sarah and the ghosts in the house. This all culminates in a truly stupid finale wherein a ghost is actually shot to death…again.
The saddest inclusion in the film is Sarah Snook, an alumni from the Spierig Brothers’ previous film, Predestination. Snook is Sarah’s niece, Marion, and she’s really there to introduce the possessed little boy in this story, her son. Though she’s thankfully not situated as a love interest for Clarke, she effectively asserts her motherhood and disappears until the final frames.
Winchester could’ve been a fascinating story about the 999 happy haunts (give or take) who inhabit the Winchester Mystery House. Instead, Winchester is 90 minutes of typical Blumhouse horror with a minor divergence into questioning whether ghosts were responsible for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. (I’m not kidding about that.) Mirren and Clarke are great, and there’s a fun retro tone that’s established but never fleshed out. Winchester is a missed opportunity; a typical January horror film you won’t remember by March.