Many scary movies claim to be inspired by true events, and Winchester has an especially rich history. The enormous, bizarre mansion at its center has long been one of San Jose, California’s biggest tourist attractions. Unfortunately, the story the movie chooses to explore within its walls is utterly predictable.
That’s not to say Winchester is total dud. The reliably great Helen Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company who’s moved by grief, guilt, and spiritual guidance to keep her rambling home in a constant state of construction, believing that she’s serving the restless spirits of those killed by her family’s rifles. Mirren is such a formidable actress that her casting elevates the movie before it even begins, and her performance is, as you’d expect, dignified and emotionally truthful without ever sliding into camp—no small feat, considering Sarah Winchester spends a lot of time literally speaking to ghosts.
Her incredible home is the perfect setting for a ghostly tale. Thanks to Mrs. Winchester’s extensive interest in the spiritual realm, the mansion is said to be one of the most haunted houses in America—and whether or not you believe that, the place is undeniably eerie. Using both sets and what appears to be actual location shooting, co-directors Michael and Peter Spierig make good use of the mansion’s well-documented architectural quirks (stairs to nowhere, random passageways, boarded-up rooms, an obsessive adherence to patterns of 13), as well as the fact that it’s overstuffed with creaking floorboards and rattling doors.
With so much built-in atmosphere, and such a compelling (and compellingly-performed) lead character, any tale that’s tacked on is going to have a hell of a time measuring up. And unfortunately, Winchester’s script is rather heavy on predictable story beats and forgettable supporting characters.
The premise of the movie, since unfortunately we can’t just trail a black-veiled Helen Mirren through candlelit corridors for 90 minutes, is that the Winchester Repeating Arms Company is trying to oust Sarah from her position as majority shareholder. So Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke)—hard-partying laudanum addict, personal-tragedy survivor, and skeptic who says things like “Fear only exists in your mind”—is summoned to the mansion from San Francisco to evaluate Mrs. Winchester. The company offers him an outright bribe to say she’s off her rocker, which is exactly what he intends to do until his new patient and her highly-charged environment make him question everything he believes in.
Dr. Price has his own connection to the afterlife, which is slowly revealed but is so obvious it will surprise only viewers who may actually be dead themselves. And since “Will Mrs. Winchester get to keep her company?” is probably the most boring dilemma any scary movie could have, the movie attempts to raise the stakes further by having a particularly vengeful spirit invade the home, threaten Sarah’s widowed niece and mop-topped great-nephew (because ya gotta have a spooky kid!), and, apparently, spark a certain very well-known natural disaster (hint: the movie takes place in 1906... yeah, they go there).
Winchester is fine, it’s amusing, Mirren is excellent. But it’s also full of missed opportunities. The film could’ve used Sarah’s story as an entry point to exploring the spiritualism craze that was sweeping America at the time. She was by no means alone in her beliefs, and it’s a relatively unexplored realm on the big screen that could provide fascinating context for a haunted-house movie like this. Instead, Winchester is far more interested in its made-up subplots and jump scares, neither of which break any new ground for the genre.
If you’ve been to the real Winchester Mystery House, as it’s now called, you won’t soon forget the experience. There’s nothing else like it in the world. The same, alas, can’t be said for this film.
Winchester is out now.