Do guns kill people, or do people kill people? What if it’s the people who make guns who kill people? That’s the theory proposed by a houseful of angry ghosts, victims of gun violence all, in the new chiller, Winchester. And, yes, the house in question is the fabled Winchester Mystery House, right in our own backyard.
Most of us know something of the true story of heiress Sarah Winchester, and the nutball Victorian mansion she had built on the outskirts of San Jose around the turn of the last century. She famously claimed the house—with its confusing maze of rooms, staircases leading nowhere, and abrupt dead ends—was built for the thousands of people killed by the deadly Winchester Repeating Rifle, the foundation of her own vast fortune. Work continued around the clock, for decades, as a memorial to, or possibly penance for, those lost lives.
There’s a compelling psychological thriller to be made of Sarah Winchester’s obsessive compulsion. It could easily be as creepy as the 1961 horror classic The Haunting, in which the only thing to fear was fear itself—and that was plenty! And the participation of the great Helen Mirren as Sarah is even more promising. But co-directors the Spierig Brothers (Jigsaw), who wrote the script with Tom Vaughan, settle for a fairly routine, living-vs.-dead haunted house spooker (albeit in Masterpiece Theatre clothing).
The story begins in 1906. Protagonist Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is a psychoanalyst who believes the mind plays tricks with perception, and refuses to believes anything he can’t see. He’s also a laudanum addict still grieving after the recent death of his beloved wife. Hired by the Board of Directors of the Winchester Rifle Company to evaluate their boss, Sarah Winchester (they’re hoping to get her declared crazy so they can take over the business), Price journeys by stagecoach from his home in San Francisco down to San Jose to spend a week in the Winchester House.
He’s greeted not by the lady of the house, but her disapproving niece, Marion (Sarah Snook). (Demonic child alert: Marion has a young son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), prone to strange interludes of sleepwalking.) Work crews surround the house, in the yard and up on scaffolding, sawing lumber and fitting boards constantly, day and night, and the bell in its tower clangs every midnight. Cupboards conceal secret doorways, and entire hallways are bordered by doors bolted shut from the outside.
The mistress of the manor, Sarah, herself (Mirren), swans around in perpetual mourning, under a black lace veil. But she doesn’t seem crazy to Price; she’s sharp and articulate, even though she speaks of creating a sanctuary for the spirits of the dead, while keeping the more “unruly spirits” locked away. And while we see her in a trance-like state one night, making automatic architectural drawings, she herself is not a mouthpiece or conduit for the ghosts—her life is in just as much jeopardy as everyone else’s when the scary stuff begins.
Here’s where things could get deliciously creepy—is Sarah’s own psyche causing all of the weird phenomena? Is it all just illusions of the mind, as Price at first believes? And how does his personal history factor into it all? (Rather nicely, actually, in the one subplot that provides an element of intrigue.) But soon enough, it all devolves into a conventional ghost story with one particularly vengeful spirit as the designated villain. The focus of the story turns to defeating this one spirit, at the expense of anything more psychologically complex.
Along these lines, the scares are pretty predictable. Creepy faces pop out of the dark. Strange murmurings and sobbing emanate from a panel of speaking tubes that connect the rooms. And as soon as a display case of rifles is wheeled into a newly completed room, you know there’s going to be target practice before long.
There’s a vibe of earnest, eerie elegance about it all, but the whole construction never rises above the ordinary.
**1/2 (out of four)
With Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, and Sarah Snook. Written by Tom Vaughan and The Spierig Brothers. Directed by The Spierig Brothers. A Lionsgate release. Rated PG-13) 99 minutes.