The story of Sarah Winchester is one of the most interesting in American gothic history. According to lore, the widow of William Wirt Winchester and heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms fortune believed her family to be cursed by the victims of Winchester rifles, and upon the advice of a spiritual medium, moved across the country to build a chaotic, seven-story structure intended to house the ghosts that haunted her. Construction continued, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, from 1884 until Sarah’s death in 1922.
While Sarah’s true motives are up for debate, the Winchester Mystery House – still standing in San Jose, California – is an unquestionably imposing mansion, made up of hallways and stairwells that go nowhere, doors that open onto thin air and shaded, secret crannies. It’s the perfect setting for a ghost story, and Jigsaw’s Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig do their best to give us one in Winchester.
They have two very strong assets in their corner, used to good effect: the house itself, which was near-perfectly recreated in an Australian set, and Helen Mirren, who plays the haunted widow with grace and dignity, elevating a film that would otherwise resemble the sort of mediocre mainstream horror we can typically expect in a February release.
The house is a star. Every physical detail gives us a true sense of place, and the claustrophobic, labyrinthine feel of the real Winchester house is effectively transferred to the one we see onscreen. Characters open wardrobes and find themselves in hallways. A shallow, slanting staircase gradually climbs dozens of landings. The ceaseless sounds of construction – hammering, sawing, sanding – provide an auditory backdrop to the film, reminding us that the Winchester home is ever-changing, growing and contracting and morphing into whatever the spirits need at any given moment. It’s the sort of gorgeous, gnarled architecture even the most imaginative production designer couldn’t make up, and it’s surprising that so few films have taken advantage of this goldmine of a haunted setting.
But even the famed Winchester Mystery House doesn’t hold a candle to Dame Helen Mirren, whose performance is so stately yet subtle that audience members may forget to look at the extraordinary rooms surrounding her whenever she’s onscreen.
Unfortunately, there’s more to Winchester than home and heiress, and the rest of the film suffers in comparison. Jason Clarke plays Eric Price, a psychiatrist with a tortured past who’s hired by Winchester Repeating Arms to prove that Sarah is too mad to effectively wield her 51% of the company’s holdings. Price has a history that ties him, nebulously, to the Winchester hauntings, and it all feels a bit slipshod and tacked-on, though he does his best to make it work. Sarah Snook is Marian Marriott, Sarah’s perhaps obsessively loyal niece and secretary, whose son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) acts as the spooky, singing British tyke we can expect in any period horror film these days. (Winchester takes place in 1906, in the middle of the Winchester home’s thirty-eight years of construction.)
The rest of the plot feels as if it’s intended to bring Winchester to a dignified running time, and that’s a pity, because Sarah’s story alone is worth at least ninety minutes. And what of the ghosts that haunt her? The scares in Winchester are decent – some atmospheric, some of the jump-scare variety – but once we reach the climax and see the ghosts in full color and dimension, they lose their power. Though Winchester does an admirable job of trying to convince us that the stakes are sky-high, it never really feels that way. No one seems in true danger of death by ghosts here.
But there is one legitimately harrowing scene, involving not a ghost but a Winchester rifle. There’s a compelling, if slight, gun violence thread running throughout Winchester, as Sarah speaks heatedly about the weapons of “indiscriminate killing” that earned her her fortune. “Profiting from violence and death – that is a wickedness that follows you.”
It’s a motif that gives Winchester a bit more weight than it would otherwise have, as do its star and the fascinating history that inspired the film. With more time and money, this low-budg little horror flick could have been something special. As is, it’s still worth your time and money to see it.