The latest from the Spierig brothers, Winchester is a historical drama of sorts, a loose adaptation of the true story of Sarah Winchester, heiress to the firearms fortune, who was born around 1840 and died in 1922. It’s also a historical throwback in itself, a horror film that were meant to horrify in the inhibited time before the late sixties, with jumps and jolts of grotesquerie but without torture or gore that would cause squeamish viewers to cover their eyes.
Considering its rated PG-13, it is quite limited in what can be shown and which leads to a rendering of violence that’s merely allusive, such as gunshots that don’t spatter blood and tissue but merely make people fall dead. And this constraint somewhat helps the film.
The directors, Peter and Michael Spierig (Predestination and Jigsaw), wrote the script with Tom Vaughan. They take an old-fashioned haunted-house tale and without commenting on the period, it treats it as given. The filmmakers create the early 20th century rather handsomely and without recourse to visually or sonically disgusting elements, build and unfold a story that’s largely centred on dialogue and that runs, above all, on an element of moral and political disgust of 1906.
Helen Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester, a colossally wealthy woman who maintains her mansion in San Jose, California, in a constant state of construction. She had bought it as a place of moderate size, and she keeps adding rooms and stories to it, based not on the designs of architects but on her own designs, resulting in a crazy quilt of styles as well as in practical conundrums, such as hidden passageways and blind corridors and staircases.
When the story starts, the board of directors at the Winchester Company have hired laudanum-addicted psychologist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to evaluate the sanity of Sarah Winchester, who owns 50 percent of the company. Sarah’s devotion to her spooky mansion has raised alarm, just as her proclamations that the estate is haunted by victims of Winchester firearms. Price takes the case and heads to San Jose, where Sarah lives with her niece Marion (Sarah Snook) and Marion’s young son.
Arriving at the mansion, Eric finds it to be run on rigid rules and, in a state of torment. Henry, Marian’s son, seems to have fallen prey to the house’s curse. He’s possessed of impulses that range from mean to self-destructive. This far, the film fails in provoking the thrill. It’s when Eric prowls around, late at night, in parts of the house that he’s told are off-limits, that the movie gets its one pure visual inspiration. He spies on Sarah as she’s doing some architectural drawing in a state of visionary ecstasy akin to automatic writing. That moment reflects the film’s sociopolitical inspiration; Sarah’s connection with the spirits of the victims of Winchester firearms has a practical basis in documentary research. She keeps voluminous files of newspaper clippings about gun killings (though it isn’t clear how she knows of the Winchester connection). Its the spirits of those victims who are guiding her hand in the drawings. Under their counsel and command, she’s reconstructing the rooms in which they were killed.
Winchester hints at a deeper moral dimension when Sarah discusses her guilt over making money off guns that have caused countless deaths. Yet, because the ghosts of shooting fatalities are seen so early on in the film, one isn’t able to interpret the ghosts metaphorically. In other words, there’s not enough rational apprehension to make the film’s irrational elements truly haunting.
Winchester features more ghosts than you can shake a stick at, and top of this, they aren’t very scary; they have the same pale look and the same digitally heightened screams that they have been possessed with in so many recent horror movies. Given the film’s expansive setting, it’s disappointing that the Spierigs would fall back on such boilerplate imagery. It speaks of Winchester’s overall failure of imagination, it’s the sort of forgettable movie that could have been a memorable one. The Spierigs shamelessly pile on haunted-house clichés that lost their juice decades ago. Instead of suspense or tension, what we have is a fright-free fiasco that earnestly preaches gun control. Here's a film so dull that even Mirren couldn’t lift it from the dullness.