Firearm heiress Sarah Winchester is convinced that she is haunted by the souls killed at the hands of the Winchester repeating rifle. After the sudden deaths of her husband and child, she throws herself into the construction of an enormous mansion designed to keep the evil spirits at bay. But when skeptical San Francisco psychiatrist Eric Price is dispatched to the estate to evaluate her state of mind, he discovers that her obsession may not be so insane after all.
What horror fan doesn’t love a good haunted house story – especially one based on real people, places, and events? That’s Winchester in a nutshell.
If you’ve ever been to San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House (or heard of it), then you’re already somewhat familiar with the backstory to Winchester. Also known as “the house that ghosts built”, the Winchester Mystery House was built by Sarah Winchester, widow of William Winchester, inventor of the famous rifle. After her husband and daughter both pass away, the grieving Sarah becomes convinced that she’s haunted by the many ghosts of those killed by Winchester firearms. She decides that the only way to appease them is to keep her San Jose home under constant construction and she did exactly that until her death.
Today, the Winchester Mystery House is a popular tourist destination and local monument. It has approximately 160 rooms including 40 bedrooms, 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, and 2 ballrooms. It is definitely one of the stranger American homes in existence today and some say it’s still quite haunted. But how well does Winchester do justice to this mysterious monument and the strange, troubled woman who lived there back in 1906?
We’ll start by pointing out that this film isn’t just directed by the Spierig brothers (Michael and Peter). It’s written by them as well. They’re also responsible for the latest installment in the long-running Saw franchise, Jigsaw. That said, while it’s clear they’ve tried to rein in their somewhat splashy filmmaking style here, a touch of it is still very much present, particularly in the dialogue. At times, the characters remind you of people in an old Hammer horror film as far as how they talk and interact – not entirely a bad thing, but also a bit distracting when it comes right down to it.
Helen Mirren is the type of artist it’s always a pleasure to see, but she’s woefully underutilized here. As much as her mere presence on the cast list wants to suggest otherwise, Winchester really isn’t about acting or artistry. It’s all about ghost effects, shock scares, and rather predictable supernatural special effects. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but may be disappointing if you’re going into this hoping for more than that.
Winchester is entertaining enough, especially if you’re a fan of Mirren’s or simply interested in seeing the infamous Mystery House on screen. However, it also has no real idea what kind of film it’s trying to be. It tries to deliver the depth you’d expect from any other Mirren vehicle, but it doesn’t quite follow through on what it promises a more cerebral viewer. On the other hand, its really not scary enough or shocking enough to impress most hardcore horror fans either. There are definitely worthy things about it that make it worth a watch – like the lush visuals and interesting color palettes – but a new classic in the making, it’s not. Do check it out, but keep your expectations on the low side.