The Winchester Repeating Arms Company is run by the founder’s widow Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) and a board of directors. That board approaches Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to examine Mrs. Winchester. The reason for their request involves Mrs. Winchester having construction running continuously on her home in San Jose, California. She is adding room after room to her home along with stairwells that go nowhere, doors that open into empty space and blocking the doors to some rooms with wooden forms nailed into the frame. The company’s board wants to make sure Mrs. Winchester is competent to continue running the company. When Dr. Price arrives he is greeted by Mrs. Winchester’s niece Marion Marriott (Sarah Snook) who is less than friendly. Chatting with Mrs. Winchester, Dr. Price realizes she is a strong and forceful woman shattered by grief at the loss of her husband and only child many years earlier. Mrs. Winchester says the house is full of the spirits of victims of the rifles she and her husbands’ company have made. The constant building of the house was suggested by a spiritualist who told her she was cursed. The rooms of the house are to be designed like the rooms or areas in which the spirits died, allowing them to deal with their anger and unfinished business. Spirits that are more aggressive are locked up in their rooms using the boards. Dr. Price doesn’t believe in spirits despite seeing frightening images in his room. Marion’s son Henry (Finn Sciculuna-O’Prey) is behaving oddly, putting a burlap sack over his head and wondering around the house in the middle of the night. Dr. Price catches him when he walks off a third floor balcony and falls to the ground while seeming to be in a trance. Mrs. Winchester is concerned about one particular spirit that is angrier, more dangerous and the strongest she’s ever experienced. Dr. Price must determine if Mrs. Winchester is crazy or if there is something supernatural going on inside the massive home nicknamed “The House that Spirits Built.”
“Winchester” is a film that says it is based on a true story. The truth of that statement is at best fragile. There was a Sarah Winchester who used her fortune to build and keep building her home with stairwells to nowhere, windows that looked at walls and doorways leading to nothing. Legend states she did this to make amends for the death her company’s guns caused after a spiritualist told her she was cursed. There is no evidence to suggest any such statement was made and the oddities of her home (that you can go and tour should you ever be near San Jose, California) may not be an effort to confuse ghosts but an example of a person with more money than architectural expertise. Despite the reality being less interesting than the fable, “Winchester” proves to be a pretty good haunted house movie with more than a few scares.
While the main actors might be accused of slumming for a paycheck, stars Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke turn in respectable performances as the rich and possibly crazy lady and the psychiatrist sent to check her out, respectively. Mirren and Clarke spar well together in scenes where the doctor is interviewing Mrs. Winchester. More time spent with this pair as they rhetorically probe and prod each other might have been a better choice than the seemingly endless scenes of people walking hesitantly down dark and narrow hallways because they heard a noise or are looking for the bathroom. I know it’s a requirement in all haunted house movies that you must show people stumbling around in wide-eyed fear as they seek out whatever it is that’s going bump in the night. This is of course the first rule of all scary films; however, the makers of “Winchester” seem to have used these scenes to pad the films’ running time since they didn’t have a very big budget to work with. It would appear the majority of the production’s money went to a scene late in the film where a large amount of CGI was used. Still, “Winchester” does manage to tell a pretty good story when it isn’t skulking through the corridors.
The idea of loss and grief being the overwhelming and guiding force in the lives of the characters plays out slowly over the course of the film. Mrs. Winchester and her niece Marion are clearly struggling with the losses of spouses. Dr. Price’s grief is revealed slowly over the course of the film and guides him to an epiphany for both the story and his life. There is a fourth character crushed by loss that turns into the antagonist of the film. His existence isn’t revealed until late in the film even though we see him throughout. This through-line of loss, grief and anger shared by all the main characters is surprisingly poignant for a throw-away horror movie. It gives a deeper look into the characters than most fright films provide and I appreciated the thought put into their stories.
Of course the most important thing about a horror movie is if it’s scary. “Winchester” manages to provide some nice jump scares. A bit with a mirror that swivels by itself to show an empty chair pays off nicely with two ghouls. There are assorted other nasties that pop up to give the audience a reason to shift suddenly in their seats. It isn’t a constant tension like “Don’t Breathe” or films of that type but it does give moments that will quicken your pulse.
“Winchester” is rated PG-13 drug content, disturbing images, some sexual material, thematic elements and violence. We see a characters lounging with women that appear to be prostitutes in various stages of undress. The aftermath of drug use is shown with a character appearing to be high. This character is also shown using laudanum from a bottle with the label showing it is a poison. We see ghosts in various stages of what appears to be decay and/or injury. A slave is shown with a metal collar around his neck. A massacre is shown with numerous people being shot. Unseen figures throw and drag people around the house and one person is shown dead after part of the house collapses on him. There is little to no foul language.
Some in the media and online have argued the movie is a statement against America’s gun culture. I have to disagree as it is only a mindless and inoffensive horror movie. Plus, there’s a scene that is actually a frequently heard counter argument whenever gun control is debated. I doubt the writers of “Winchester” had any ulterior motives in mind when they wrote their script about the odd house designed by a woman with more money than training in building design. Watching the movie should be approached with the same lack of thought.
“Winchester” gets four stars out of five.
This week I’ll be reviewing “The 15:17 to Paris” for the WIMZ website.
If I have time, I’ll review one of the following for this webpage (Hint: It won’t be the one about bondage).
Fifty Shades Freed—
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