What is ‘Winchester’?
Subtitled ‘The House that Ghosts Built’, Winchester is based on the true story of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), whose deceased husband created the Winchester repeating rifle. Believing herself haunted by the ghosts of those killed by the gun, Sarah Winchester begins a construction project, building an enormous, labyrinthine mansion. But when a shady businessman wants to get his hands on her inherited share of her husband’s profitable firearms company, he sends a doctor – Eric Price (Jason Clarke) — to investigate, strongly suggesting that the doc assess her as unstable. With his own issues to contend with, things aren’t straightforward. Price soon realises that her obsessive, eccentric behaviour isn’t as bizarre as it at first seems.
Throttled and Pistol-Whipped
As much as you may want it to be, this isn’t Sarah Winchester’s story. Directing duo Michael and Peter Spierig dispense with developing her character – or anybody else’s for that matter – in favour of adding unnecessary elements to the story, and building in jump scares and seen-it-all-before horror imagery. What they end up with is a film that never goes where you want it to and does nothing particularly well.
The role of Sarah Winchester should be an interesting one. But she only ever comes across as an eccentric widow, present merely to wear black and drive the unfocused story. What we want is to learn more about her – we get the bare minimum of her backstory and learn little about what makes her tick. And with the Spierigs presenting her in traditional, ‘spooky old widow’ ways – having her stalk corridors swathed in black, face concealed by a dark veil – and Helen Mirren struggling with the accent, we get at best an unconvincing attempt at bringing a real-life character to the screen. At worst, a laughable ghost story trope.
Pantomime-style theatrics abound – although you’ll find your heart in your mouth on a couple of occasions when things get a bit physical and poor old Helen Mirren finds herself being thrown around, throttled, pistol-whipped and almost shot. They’re actually the most gut-wrenching moments of the film.
Mirren’s Sarah Winchester might be the most obvious hackneyed ghost-story trope, but there are plenty of others that betray a lack of imagination. While a film like Woman in Black delivers a good old-fashioned ghost story effectively, Winchester lazily employs and constructs jump scares and moments of horror that are eye-rollingly unoriginal.
There are a couple of occasions where the tension is ramped up to unbearable tautness before it’s broken with a terrifying shot of a spooky figure – but these are few and far between. Sometimes, the film edges unintentionally close to comedy with its inclusion of moments and devices that have been lampooned a hundred times over.
And not only does the film plunder overused ghost story devices, it also steals Japanese horror-style imagery that leaves you feeling cold. And we don’t mean with fear.
It would have been a better film had it picked one of its characters to explore in depth. Instead, it attempts confusingly and over-ambitiously to lever in several characters and leaves them all underdeveloped. Eric Price is another intriguing character whose story gets some emphasis but is unsatisfyingly established and concluded. He’s battling addiction – or more specifically, attempting to deal with enforced cold turkey. This not only provides a believable explanation for his experiences in the Winchester house but also hints at something deeper going on with his character. But the film isn’t about him, really, either.
There’s a young boy who’s strongly affected by the ghosts in the house to the point of possession. And yet it’s not about him either. No, the main thrust of the story concerns a new ghost that’s arrived. It’s a powerful, malevolent spirit seeking revenge on Mrs Winchester for the fate that befell him. We won’t go into details though, lest it spoil things.
Suffice to say, you don’t really care for his story any more than anyone else’s. More to the point, you care even LESS about this dude’s arc. And because it’s introduced after other narrative strands and characters have already piqued your interest, it’s not the direction you want the film to take. It ultimately goes in a far less satisfying direction than the one your brain conjures up. Maybe you’re expecting a twist à la The Others. But sadly, said twist never comes.
Exploring the pertinent theme of the psychological impact of gun death, it does have this in its favour. However, the power of this is diminished because of its stylised approach, stunted characterisation and the time period it’s set in. Which is a great shame.
Is Winchester Good?
Touching on the gun theme and a couple of tense, genuinely scary moments are all that Winchester really has going for it. Ultimately, its difficult not to come away from it thinking that there’s very little point to this film. It’s neither innovative nor a standout example of a ghost story made well.
Yes, it might be based on the true story of the world’s most haunted house. But there were several other stories to be told here before this one got a shot at being made. Instead, you get this convoluted — yet curiously simultaneously simple — nonsense.