Written and directed by: The Spierig Brothers
Starring: Helen Mirren, Sarah Snook, Jason Clarke
Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements
Anybody who’s been to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California knows the story: after her husband and infant child died, heiress Sarah Winchester bought a small farmhouse and set about adding onto it. She kept construction going 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for decades. She believed the ghosts of people killed with Winchester rifles were angry, and constant building was the only way to pacify them. “Winchester” punches the story up a couple of notches and gives us Helen Mirren as old lady Winchester. It’s not a great film, but if you love ghost stories it’ll probably be right up your alley.
The film follows one Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), hired by the board of the Winchester Rifle Company to assess Mrs. Winchester’s mental state. She owns 51% of the company, but if they can get her judged as mentally unfit, they can take it away from her and cut off the money she’s using to build the house. Price arrives at the enormous mansion to find the widow very calm and self-possessed, and her niece, Marion Marriott (Sarah Snook), very protective of her eccentric aunt.
Naturally Price starts seeing strange things almost immediately, but he writes them off as hallucinations from his laudanum addiction. As he spends more time in the house and interviewing Mrs. Winchester, it becomes more and more difficult for him to ignore that the house is very, very haunted. And some of the ghosts are very, very angry.
Jump scares abound, as in a lot of ghost movies, and all the actors involved seem to know that they’re in a not-so-great movie. Mirren somehow manages to chew scenery while still being dignified, and she is the treasure that makes the film work. Everything else is pretty by-the-book, from Marion’s possessed son to Price’s unusual history with the afterlife.
The special effects are a bit rough at the beginning – the house is currently only four stories tall, and the CGI used to add in the stories damaged in the 1906 earthquake and then removed is pretty dreadful. Once the action is inside the house, though, the ghosts and their antics are well-done. As the intensity of the ghostly action increases, the special effects’ quality also increases, up to some truly beautiful – and very creepy – action in the film’s climactic sequence.
The film sticks very close to the actual architecture of the house in a lot of cases. Fans of the place will spot many of the oddities and unusual quirks of the house that are pointed out on tours. The explanation the film gives for the frequently-recurring number thirteen (thirteen petals on stained-glass daisies, thirteen small windows in a room, etc.) is creative, and there are small nods to history throughout the movie.
If you’re looking for a gory horror movie, look elsewhere. This is a ghost story, rated PG-13, and most of the spookiness is due to jump scares and waiting for jump scares. If you love the Winchester house, are a fan of Helen Mirren, or like a decent spooky flick, “Winchester” is a good bet. It’s not a great film, but it is a good one.