In 2016, I got to visit The Winchester Mystery House. It was a long-time dream to go see Sarah Winchester’s 160 room mansion outside of San Jose, California, and it far exceeded my expectations. Winchester was the heir to her husband’s wealth earned from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company as well as his 50% share in the company, at that time the leading firearms manufacturer in the United States. After suffering the tragic losses of her baby daughter and her husband in quick succession, Winchester allegedly visited a medium who suggested that she was cursed by the souls of those killed by Winchester rifles. Winchester then purchased an unfinished farmhouse and began remodeling it, holding nightly séances to consult the spirits about the plans for the house. Supposedly, the idea was that the house would appease the spirits and protect her from the curse. The house was under constant construction from 1894 until Winchester’s death in 1922. When she passed, workers stopped immediately, leaving some nails partially hammered in place. To this day, the Winchester mansion is known as one of the most haunted houses in the United States.
In Winchester, the movie based on Sarah Winchester’s story, Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to assess Mrs. Winchester’s (Helen Mirren) mental health. The company is “worried about her” and/or wants to take her controlling shares of the company away due to her supposed incompetence. The root of their “concerns”? Mrs. Winchester’s persistent belief that her family is cursed and her sprawling home is haunted. When Dr. Price arrives at the house, he is greeted by Marion and Henry Marriott (Sarah Snook and Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), Mrs. Winchester’s niece and great nephew. Henry has been sleepwalking amidst other strange occurrences at the house. As Dr. Price tries to fairly assess Mrs. Winchester, he also copes with withdrawal from his laudanum addiction and grief over his late wife. Soon, the house throws in some ghosts for him to deal with too.
The film is set in 1906, the year of the massive earthquake in San Francisco. The film seems on the verge of mentioning the quake and then the house is shaken by ghosts, rather than tectonic plates. The result is what looks like a bizarre editing error in which a major event was lifted out imperfectly. I think the film is weaker for that strangeness. The Winchester house suffered major damage in the 1906 earthquake, and Winchester was trapped in one of her rooms as a result. Most of the house survived, however, because of its floating foundation. A more smoothly written screenplay could have connected this major event to the ghost story or chosen not to obliquely reference it and then veer in a different direction.
Winchester, however, is not a well-written movie. It takes its fascinating setting and totally wastes it. The film provides the audience with wonderful views of the house and a few glimpses at its quirkier elements, but that is truly the only good part about the movie. The acting, even by a force like Helen Mirren, veers between shallow and over the top. The plot is predictable and lacks much intrigue. The movie is full of jump scares, but, does nothing original or interesting with the ghost story. The Spierig Brothers have managed to take a treasure trove of source material and make a boring movie. It pains me to think of how good a movie about the Winchester could have been if the subject had been treated with any creativity or skill.
When I visited the house, I was surprised by how beautiful it is. I was also fascinated to learn that many of the oddities of the house can be attributed to Mrs. Winchester’s ingenuity. The odd staircases helped her navigate the house despite painful arthritis. The slanted floor in one room allowed plants to be watered inside and then the water drained out of the house. Although much of the legend around her focuses on hauntings, Mrs. Winchester was a creative architect in her own right. Instead of watching Winchester, I suggest reading about the story of the house. The real story is far more interesting than this hackneyed, wasted attempt at a compelling haunted house tale. I rate Winchester 1.5 out of 5 stars.
Winchester was written and directed by The Spierig Brothers. It runs 1 hour and 39 minutes and is rated PG-13.
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