Winchester is the house that ghosts built. Despite dropping that latter half from its title near the end of its marketing campaign – don’t worry, the film won’t let you forget. A series of plot-less sound bites and jumbled jump scares, you’ll wonder if the team behind Winchester have ever studied gothic horror. When I anticipate a haunted romp through a turn of the century mansion, with all its crooks, crannies, corners, and looming shadows – I want pacing. I want dread. I want delicacy.
The Winchester Mansion
How Hollywood has gone this long without scooping up the tale of Sarah Winchester and her endless corridors is beyond me. The Winchester House, a real life mansion sitting atop the hills of San Jose, California, has been harboring an iconic legend for over a century. In 1881, Sarah Winchester became a widow and heir to the Winchester Arms Rifle Foundation. Believed to be tormented by the spirits who died by the business end one of her husband’s rifles, she spent the rest of her life expanding the house. (Maybe a foundation for widows and orphans may have proved more fruitful, but who am I to judge). Most accounts say this was in effort to confuse the spirits and keep them at bay. With no master plan, and construction continuing 24 hours, 7 days a week, the final house contained 161 rooms at the time of Sarah’s death in 1922.
Sarah was a superstitious woman. You can see these touches if you were to take a tour of the current house; the number 13 used everywhere- from candles in chandeliers, to the number of coat hooks, to the number of panes of glass in a particular window. Spiderwebs adorned many entrances, carved into the wood and the motif adorned much of the decorating. It was also said that Sarah would sleep in a different bedroom every night, in an attempt to further thwart the spirits that raced through her maze.
As a child fascinated by all things paranormal and macabre, I sought out countless books about her story. I delighted in films like The Haunting and the Stephen King made-for-tv mini-series Rose Red. I hunted down photos of the many doors to nowhere, and staircases straight toward ceilings. What a perfect home for a ghost, what a wonderful place for a ghost story.
It should have been easy.
The Film That Hollywood Built
Stylistically, Winchester should have sought inspiration from films like The Others. 1963’s The Haunting based on the iconic novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. The Changling. Guillermo del Toro’s The Orphanage. I could go on.
Instead, it seems the filmmakers, Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig (the pair behind Jigsaw), took inspiration from more flashy, modern horrors. The shock and awe of Insidious, the legacy building of The Conjuring, the confused Rings, and even – the hardly translucent spectres of 13 Ghosts.
Set during the 1900’s, the film follows the damaged, drug-addicted (fictional) psychiatrist Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who’s been snatched from an opium den and given an unprecedented wad of cash to perform a mental health examination on the kooky and haunted Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Like the real-life story, Sarah has the hobby of building rooms for the spirits that seemingly torment her. This, to the board at the Winchester Rifle Company, sounds like grounds for removal. Only, they need a doctor’s note.
But as Dr. Price settles in to the strange estate, we learn he too is tormented. Right away, spectres pop out to say Boo. This is the part where the audience screams ‘GET OUT! ACT! ADDRESS THIS SITUATION!’ But, because our protagonist psychologist spends much of the first act under the influence of some turn-of-the-century poison, he chalks it up to drug related side effects. Fine. Soon, ignorance can no longer be used as a valid excuse when an angry spirit possesses a boy..
The boy, Sarah’s great-nephew (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), is possessed. Don’t ask why, he just is. Each time there sporadic states of possession take grip of the boy, Winchester raises the stakes. He wanders around the halls at night, babbling about an evil spirit. GET OUT! He attempts to jump to his death. ACT! He tries to shoot and murder Sarah. ADDRESS THIS SITUATION!
All the while our psychologist is still trying to complete his mental health examination, detox from drugs, and for some reason unbeknownst to the audience, get in the garden room. “Why do I have deja vu right now?”
Guns Are Bad, But No Wait- They Aren’t
Unfortunately, the Gothic vision that is Sarah Winchester (and Helen Mirren’s best Woman In Black impression) is highly under-utilized in this film. After a grand entrance in which servants straighten, doors open, and chairs are pulled out – our fictional Sarah lifts a haunted black veil to reveal a tortured, tired face. This character is a woman led by a lifetime of superstition and motivated by grief. She is more tortured than any spirit that could be lurking in the shadows.
And yet, each scene the filmmakers throw her in a chair as an afterthought, giving her stiff soundbites to explain the rules and motivations of the spirits she conjures; 13 is a number that keeps them at bay, the rooms she builds are the rooms they died in, guns are evil. We anticipate a puppet master, but all we receive is a plot puppet.
Apart from her belief in the occult, we learn absolutely nothing about her. She jumps into action to protect her possessed great-nephew, but what is it she does? She commands people leave – they appear again the next scene. She demands a door be nailed shut – oh wait that wardrobe is also a door. We learned she was the one who hired Dr. Price – and though we eventually learn why – we are never given a moment with her motivations.
This house is filled with stale air. Ghosts appear conveniently, are locked away conveniently. We race around a house of endless corridors, but really only film in two of them. The Winchester rifle is evil – but then the final solution, the ultimate evil spirit is thwarted by (sorry, ‘finds his peace’ by)… a bullet in the head.
Stairs to Nowhere
As a haunted house fanatic, Winchester is a film that I eagerly received. Despite my expectations being slightly diminished by the ghost-happy trailer, I went into this film still eagerly anticipating some spectres in one of the spookiest, most interesting houses in North America. The setting already existed. The ghost story already existed. All this film needed was a camera and a delicate hand.
Ghost stories are stories of loss. Loss of loved ones, loss of self, loss of comfort in the world. The arc in these gothic tales comes from the human component. The ghosts fuel the story, but it is humanity that ultimately has to go on the journey. In Winchester, both Dr. Price and Sarah Winchester start on their own individual journeys of loss and acceptance, but it isn’t allowed to resonate. Too much time is spent creating and thwarting a Boss Level ghost, irrelevant to either path. Sarah’s grief for Annie never flourishes before it is quashed in the outro. Dr. Price’s mystery of love and death wraps up in favor of a climactic, but altogether un-important third act. The filmmakers are constrained by shock and awe in favor of delving into true human grief.
Winchester is now playing in theatres.