As a widow, Sarah Winchester has inherited majority share of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The other stakeholders get together to hire laudanum-addicted Dr. Price to assess her and find her incompetent to run their business. It shouldn’t be too hard: she’s a crazy, reclusive old lady who is constantly remodelling her home, round the clock, to better suit the ghosts and spirits who inhabit it.
It sounds bad on paper, but once Dr. Price (Jason Clarke) arrives, he starts to share in her hallucinations. Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) was a real person, and she really did believe that anyone killed by one of her guns may visit her home in death – seeking revenge or otherwise – and it was her duty to house them and try to find them peace. To appease them, she employed a work crew, round the clock, day and night, 7 days a week for 37 years, until her death, building new rooms, tearing down old ones, resulting in a 7-story house with more than 100 rooms, staircases that led nowhere, and twisty, unnavigable hallways. But some ghosts were not content with her efforts. Some ghosts demanded more.
I have no problem with the cast, and as you might guess, Helen Mirren is of course a gothic gem. But this movie was all wrong. All wrong. It should never have been a horror film. This is actually a very interesting story that deserved a much better treatment. Sarah Winchester is the kind of character you instinctively want to learn more about, but this movie would have you on Wikipedia rather than provide her any backstory or context. Instead the house is the most compelling character, and all the walking, talking, sentient characters, both alive and dead, are badly neglected. But even the house sort of loses its charms after the film makers’ limited imagination is maxed out. It just feels like all directors Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig are concerned with is shoving as many jump-scares into one movie as humanly, or demonly, possible. And it’s a lot. There will be something terrifying in EVERY corner, in every mirror and reflection, under every bed, in every attic, behind the curtains, and inside the body of every ginger man and boy. They’ve used a very interesting story as the mere setting, and then completely spoiled it with misuse.
Winchester needed to be a drama with supernatural elements, like Sixth Sense, but instead it’s bottom of the barrel horror. I was prepared to be frightened by it (Sean and I even “worked up” to it by viewing Peter Rabbit first) but I wasn’t expecting to pity it, and it’s hard to sustain suspense for a thing you feel sorry for. And I felt bad for Helen Mirren, who would be too good for the tripe even if she herself were a long-dead ghost merely haunting the set. The good news, though, is that she looks terrific in a widow’s mourning veil, so let’s get her in a Guillermo del Toro film, stat!