“Winchester” starring Helen Mirren as gun hieress aims high, shoots low
It’s February at the movies! There are so many anticipated titles opening this month but none compare to the highest pre-selling Marvel Universe movie of all time, Black Panther! The box-office titan opens nationwide Friday, February 16, and The Popcorn Periodical will have an exclusive movie review available opening day. Wakanda awaits! Until then, there are two more weekends of movie openings ahead, including this weekend’s supernatural period-drama, Winchester, which is based on true events at the Winchester Mansion in San Jose, California, in 1906.
Written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig (The Spierig Brothers, Jigsaw, Daybreakers), the tale of Mrs. Sarah Winchester (Academy Award Winner Dame Helen Mirren) is a historically motivated thriller, not your standard haunted house horror. The horror genre is making a comeback in 2018 (already leaving a mark with Insidious: The Last Key opening to nearly $30 million in ticket sales in the first weekend of the year making it the third-largest opening weekend for a horror film in January). It’s clear – fans want more horror movies. Innovative and classic horror movies, like Get Out and IT, and cult favourites, like Annabelle: Creation and Cult of Chucky, all four of which have helped bring the horror genre back from the almost-dead in 2017. Winchester, on the other hand, doesn’t deliver the levels of horror expected, but it does add to the elegance of the genre, like 1999’s The Haunting, or Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak.
The very real, whimsical, and supposedly sinister Winchester Mansion, known as the Winchester Mystery House, is said to have been “built by ghosts” and posed a very real threat to its inhabitants in the early nineteenth century. Or did it?
Real-life Victorian rifle heiress, Mrs. Sarah Winchester, orchestrated unconventional and on-going construction on a mansion she moved to in San Jose after her husband, William Wirt Winchester, died in 1885. She became one of the wealthiest women in the world at the time as her inheritance from her late husband’s estate included US$20 million (equivalent to over US$507 million in 2018) as well as 50% holding share in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Being part owner one of the largest repeating firearm manufacturers in the world, Sarah Winchester decided to up and move from Connecticut to California with the couples’ young son.
“She was Bill Gates-rich from this famous family, so people watched her, talked about her, and speculated,” says Janan Boehme, official historian at Winchester Mystery House, now a preserved tourist attraction.
Filming on location at the exquisite house and working alongside such noted actors as Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke, The Spierig Brothers’ directorial careers are benefiting greatly from this 1h 39m major motion picture undertaking. There is heavy dialogue, layered character-building, and an underlying message promoting gun control – all of which come off as surprising.
The sophisticated and somewhat true story follows a damaged and mourning therapist, Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke, Mudbound, Zero Dark Thirty), struggling to cope with the death of his wife. Wasting away, the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. hires Dr. Price to travel to San Jose and stay at the Winchester Mansion to assess the mental well-being of Mrs. Winchester. It seems the move to San Jose and the constant construction by the heiress has her partners and shareholders concerned for her mental well being. Basically, they think she’s a crazy lady with a hard-on for renovations and they want to take away her stake.
Winchester leaves everything to the imagination at first, questioning every nook and cranny that Dr. Price stumbles upon, but in the same vein as 2012’s The Woman In Black, or 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, the true horror of the film will always be unknown. Urban legends and ghost stories are no stranger to the Winchester Mystery House but audiences are left with more questions than answers.
By the second-half, it is realized that too many of the jump-scares are depicted from the movie trailer but the unrevealed scares that remain are enough to keep it thrilling. The production, including costume, set design, and cinematography, all speak to the authenticity the directors set out to achieve in that the house is as beautiful as it is otherworldly.
Short scenes portraying a black slave as a tormented ghost seem distasteful in a film released at the top of Black History Month, but one could argue it was an accurate portrayal of the times. Perhaps it would have been proved beneficial for The Spierig Brothers to explore the slave’s story, rather than having him shackled, nameless, and only good for a couple of scares. It’s small cheap-shots like these that miss the mark in Winchester, along with a loot-bag of horror cliches we’ve seen before – creepy lady in black, possessed child, spooky hallways, and the crumbling of a house that in this particular case, was actually caused by a noted earthquake. For every interesting and impressive high, there is a lacklustre and disappointing low, but the lead actors are all very well versed and bring a lightness to their performances, even if it takes the better part of the movie to understand what’s really going on at the Winchester Mansion.
To this very day, it is unclear as to why Sarah Winchester ordered construction on the Winchester Mystery House. She designed and created hundreds of additional rooms within a labyrinth-style network of hallways but access to some of the rooms was strictly prohibited. The Spierig Brothers turned this historical home into a movie set and shined (at best) a shadowy light on Mrs. Winchester’s curious construction methods and the elusive reasonings (or ghosts) behind them. One thing’s for certain, stay out of the Garden Room!
3.5 Popcorn Kernels / 5
About the Author
Joey Viola is the Co-Founder of MoJo Toronto and an LGBTQ community leader who utilizes his passion and flair for the art of writing by bringing a fresh perspective in reviewing entertainment and advocating for equality, tolerance, and social/political justice.