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Winchester (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 15, 2020



Starring Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Angus Sampson, Laura Brent, Tyler Coppin, Eamon Farren, Thor Carlsson, Emm Wiseman, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Bruce Spence, Jeffrey W. Jenkins, Dawayne Jordan, Xavier Gouault, Alice Chaston, Homero Lopez, Jeff Lipary, John Lobato, Adam Bowes, Marcus Orelias, Brad Arnoldt and Douglas Embry.

Screenplay by Tom Vaughan & The Spierig Brothers.

Directed by The Spierig Brothers.

Distributed by Lionsgate. 99 minutes. Rated PG-13.

The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose is a well-known tourist destination. It is now run as a museum, listed as a historic landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. This is only partially because it is considered to be one of the most haunted homes in the world. It also has to do with the house’s strange back story and the oddball architecture of the house.

The Mystery House was the home of Sarah Lockwood Winchester, the widow of rifle magnate William Wirt Winchester. Legend has it that after Winchester’s husband’s death left her a multi-millionaire and 51% owner of his company, and after her daughter died at six weeks, Mrs. Winchester went to a medium to speak with their spirits.

The myth continues (granted, just one of many theories about what happened), that the medium convinced her that she was cursed because her family had gotten rich off an instrument of death. The souls of those who were killed by Winchester rifles would haunt her and she must help to ferry them to the light and peace of the hereafter. She would do that by creating rooms replicating the place that the spirit died and helping them come to terms with the fact that they were dead. If she ever stopped building, the spirits would take vengeance on her and she would die.

Therefore, the house is a wild and chaotic jumble of architectural styles and ephemera. There are rooms that were never used (in fact, many of them were nailed shut), stairways that lead to nowhere, doors that open into walls or even thin air, armoires which double as secret passages, staircases that lead to other opposite staircases, mazes of hallways which become so convoluted you can easily lose yourself.

There were working builders at the Winchester House for almost 40 years, creating and destroying rooms and entire wings 24/7, trying to keep spirits and the homeowner’s demons at bay. (Though one of Winchester’s biographers denies that it was quite that non-stop, claiming that there would be periodic breaks lasting weeks or even months.)

It’s the world’s first gun-control ghost story.

The story has intrigued authors and filmmakers for years, and has been the subject of many books, as well as inspiring many films and TV projects. (For example, Stephen King’s original miniseries Rose Red was not-so-loosely based on the Mystery House.) However, there has never been a film that was filmed on the premises of the great, sprawling manor.

That is, until now. Well, at least partially. Much of the film was made in Australia, but a decent amount was also filmed on location.

Winchester takes place in the glory years of the house, right in the time leading up to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Jason Clarke plays Dr. Eric Price, a psychiatrist who is approached by the Winchester Company to analyze Mrs. Winchester (Helen Mirren). She is behaving erratically, walking around her home in a full funeral veil and dress, planning room after room to be added to her already bursting estate. The company hopes that the Doctor will allow them to have her committed, so that they can take over her 51% majority ownership share.

Dr. Price has more than his share of problems himself, though. He is in mourning of his wife who died mysteriously a few years earlier. He is addicted to laudanum, alcohol and prostitutes, lazing away his days in his San Francisco townhome trying to anesthetize his pain.

When he arrives, he figures it is an easy paycheck, he will tell the company what they want to hear and move on. However, as he gets to know Sarah better and sees the mysterious apparitions around the house, he comes to question if perhaps she really is sane.

If you’ve read any of my reviews, you know that ghost stories are by far my favorite kind of horror film. And it turns out the Winchester is a fairly good one, but not great. Early in the film, there are several significant chills. Unfortunately, like most ghost stories on film these days, when they feel the need to make the scares bigger, they tend to overdo things and get stuck in cliched CGI overload – too busy and wildly destructive to be scary.

However, Winchester has a mostly intriguing storyline, and the atmosphere of the old manor give the movie a certain realistic sense of unease and dread. I’m not sure that Winchester is the type of movie which will capture a huge following, but it may get a passionate cult following with haunted house film fans.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: February 2, 2018.

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