There’s a brief moment early in Winchester when viewers could be forgiven for getting their hopes up. The film opens with a prologue in which a child wanders a gloomy old mansion in the middle of the night; we can tell something is amiss because he wears a roughly sewn sack over his head. At the conclusion of the prologue, an elegantly curlicued title card replete with copyright information flashes on the screen in slightly desaturated crimson. These kinds of title cards used to be a standard feature of older horror films, and aficionados will be primed to expect some kind of worshipful homage that hearkens back to an era before slasher films irreversibly altered the genre. Unfortunately, it’s nothing more than a blood-red herring, and the film that follows is neither tasteful nor particularly scary.
The story (“Inspired by Actual Events”) is loosely based upon the life of Sarah Winchester, widowed heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. After her husband’s death from tuberculosis, Winchester inherited fifty percent of the rifle company, as well as a sizable fortune. She moved out west to San Jose, California, and set about building a never-completed mansion. Construction workers built the house up around the clock for decades with no architectural plan to guide them — just the constantly shifting whims of Winchester. The mansion grew to seven stories during her lifetime, and featured numerous twisting hallways and Escher-like inconsistencies. Some windows opened into other rooms rather than the exterior; doors to nowhere opened to the outside world — from the second floor. Photographs of the real-life Winchester house are strange and oddly chilling. It’s a monument to one person’s overpowering superstitions, or possibly her madness. Victorian decorations are combined with more modern flourishes, like something Frank Lloyd Wright might have designed in Hell.
In the film, Sarah Winchester (a phoned-in performance from Helen Mirren) is being investigated by the board members of her own company due to her desire to move away from its lucrative firearm sales. Jason Clarke plays Dr. Eric Price, a physician hand-selected by Winchester to conduct the investigation into her mental health. Price takes up residence in her mansion, also inhabited by Winchester’s niece and her young son. The house’s mysterious design is chilling enough, but Price begins to see frightening apparitions. Of course, since this is a film set in the early 20th century, Price is addicted to the opium derivative laudanum, which causes its fair share of hallucinations. But Winchester — a teetotaler — seizes his supply, and it’s soon apparent that the figures Price sees are far more sinister than mere opium dreams.
The Winchester house has been a cultural fixation for much of the past century, even inspiring a Swamp Thing comic, and it’s a regular tourist destination in Northern California. The bones of a great horror story are already there, buried somewhere within the mansion’s labyrinthine corridors. But directors Michael and Peter Spierig fail spectacularly by tethering a significant contemporary political issue to a silly little ghost story. Without ruining any of the film’s tepid surprises, it’s safe to divulge that Winchester keeps building the rooms in her house as an act of appeasement to the spirts of people killed by the rifles her company manufactures.
Guns are a particularly American evil, to the point that many Americans have lost track of the number of mass shootings that occur each year, much less the run-of-the-mill suicides and homicides that torment the nation. Although billed as an American-Australian co-production, most of Winchester was shot in Australia, and most of its creative force and actors are Australian. It’s easier to understand why someone would want to make a tawdry ghost story out of an issue that results in the deaths of tens of thousands of people each year if they have no real connection to it — after all, Australia’s reaction to a horrific mass shooting was to make guns very difficult to acquire. They’re mostly a theoretical issue for the creators of Winchester.
Beyond matters of taste, the Spierigs’ strangely fail to capitalize on the Winchester house’s unusual architecture. There are throwaway shots to the door to nowhere and to windows installed in the floor, but the characters don’t really explore the twisting hallways in great depth. There’s not a sense that the characters could get lost within the maze of the house. In fact, Winchester and Dr. Price end up returning to the same rooms over and over again. Any standard spooky mansion would have worked if there was no intention to make use of the ever-expanding floor plan.
Jason Clarke seems to be trying to break into American theaters the way fellow Aussie Joel Edgerton has, but his range is considerably smaller — he doesn’t have the cool detachment, nor the righteous fury that Edgerton has at his disposal. Mirren’s role in the film is almost puzzling; despite being a great actress, she barely seems to be trying. Winchester is supposed to be a woman enveloped by grief and tormented either by ghosts or madness, yet she has far too strong a grasp on her marbles. Dr. Price is supposed to be assessing her sanity, but the audience knows she’s perfectly sane from the moment they meet, which robs the film of a good deal of ambiguity and suspense.
Horror fans will be the most disappointed viewers of Winchester. The Spierig brothers have opted for a particularly bloodless version of a PG-13 horror film. After cutting his teeth on the torture porn of Saw, James Wan proved that gore-free horror could still be frightening and stylish with the Insidious and Conjuring films, but the Spierigs simply aren’t in his league. Many of their jump scares fail to land, and shockingly sloppy editing makes them nearly incomprehensible.
There’s a version of Winchester that could have worked, a film that wouldn’t use a national tragedy as its subject and zoomed in on the inherently creepy nature of the Winchester house. This isn’t that film.