Helen Mirren in a horror film. That’s… different.
So a little back story. You’re looking at that poster and reading, “Inspired by true events.” Well, there’s a few things to keep in mind. For one thing, the Winchester Mystery House is a real thing. It’s a mansion that resides in San Jose, California. And if you’re looking at the name “Winchester” and making a connection to the Winchester rifles, well, then you’re on point. The Winchester rifles were made by gun magnate William Wirt Winchester and his company Winchester Repeating Arms, which he was the treasurer of up until his death in 1881 by tuberculosis. If you’re not in the know, yes, Winchester Repeating Arms is still around today. The story this movie follows is that of William’s wife, Sarah Winchester. She famously got rich off her husband’s passing, held fifty-percent holding in the company, and continuously built and rebuilt her mansion. Why? She believed she was cursed. She was fascinated by the number 13, so there was always random numbers of thirteen of something around, like, thirteen candles on a chandelier, thirteen bathrooms, stuff like that. And of course, it was claimed to be haunted by the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifles.
Although, I could really use some clarification here for those of you who are history buffs. The Civil War ended in 1865, correct? The Winchester repeating rifle wasn’t made until 1866, correct? During the Civil War, it was the Henry rifle that was more commonly used, correct? Yet this movie insists on using the Winchester rifle as its subject. Is this a creative liberty that the movie took, or is there something else to the invention of the Winchester rifle that I can’t find, or missed?
Anyway, Sarah Winchester was a real person who really did build and rebuild rooms in her home. Whether or not the house is truly haunted is anyone’s guess.
This movie does the Conjuring thing, taking a real event, and basically dramatizing it for a more thrilling and interesting story. I know this because I’ve seen this flick twice, both times before the film was completed. I signed up and get invited to early screenings. The first time I saw this, the effects weren’t completed, and the second time, they were. To be fair, I didn’t know I was seeing the same movie again; my invitation didn’t tell me the title.
As I’ve already seen the movie twice, I won’t bother with what I thought the movie was about, so I’ll jump right into the credits.
Here’s the cast. Starring, we have Helen Mirren (THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS , THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY , THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY , and upcoming films THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS  and BERLIN, I LOVE YOU ), Jason Clarke (MUDBOUND , TERMINATOR GENISYS , DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES , and upcoming films CHAPPAQUIDDICK  and THE AFTERMATH ), Sarah Snook (THE GLASS CASTLE , THE DRESSMAKER , and the upcoming SIBLING RIVALRY ), and Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, making his feature film debut. Congrats, young man. In support, we have Angus Sampson (INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY , MAD MAX: FURY ROAD , and the upcoming BENJI ), Eamon Farren (LION , and upcoming films HARMONY  and ANDORRA ), and Laura Brent (THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER ).
Now for the crew. Oh boy, this might get jumbled. The movie is co-directed by brothers Michael and Peter Spierig. Both have credits for “re-writes” and Peter was also the composer of the film’s score. Both men have directed JIGSAW (2017), and directed and wrote PREDESTINATION (2014) and DAYBREAKERS (2009). Peter’s only credit as a composer is for PREDESTINATION. Before the re-writes, penning the screenplay was Tom Vaughan, known for stuff I’ve never heard of. The cinematographer is Ben Nott, known for JIGSAW, PREDESTINATION, DAYBREAKERS, and the upcoming AT LAST (2018). Finally, the editor is Matt Villa, known for LEGO BATMAN (2017), THE WATER DIVINER (2015), and the Ethan Hawk films already listed, and the upcoming AT LAST.
This is my honest opinion of: WINCHESTER
Set in San Jose, California, circa 1906. Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a drug-addicted former soldier, is called upon by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to pay a visit to the widowed Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), co-owner of the company, at her mansion and to assess her mental and physical health and ultimately judge if she’s still capable of running the company, especially with the circulating rumors that the mansion is haunted by the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester Repeating Rifle. Upon his arrival at the mansion, which is constantly built and rebuilt, Eric meets Sarah’s family, and the longer he stays, the more he experiences unnatural occurrences, which may or may not be a result of his drug addiction.
Full disclosure, this marks the third time I’ve seen this movie. The first was back in September before the film was completed. I get invited to early screenings sometimes. The second time was a month or so later. That time, I actually didn’t know I was seeing it because my invitation didn’t say what movie was being screened, but I liked the movie enough to want to see how far along it was coming, plus I think I was getting paid ten or twenty dollars at the end of it, so you tell me. In any case, the effects were, or were mostly, completed. Now, I’ve seen it in theaters as a finished product. Objectively speaking, this movie isn’t very good. But having said that, it does do a few things that I like. So if anyone tells you that this movie isn’t good, I don’t think I’d argue. However, I can’t say that I agree wholeheartedly, as there are elements that I like and even appreciate that I don’t think enough horror films do, even the best of them.
So first off, the acting is pretty good. Mirren does a wonderful job playing this elegant, yet troubled woman who wants to help her resident spirits move on, carrying her own complex guilt over their deaths. On the one hand, she acknowledges that the rifle is a success and the most popular rifle on the market, post-Civil War (historically accurate?), but is pretty cynical about it’s use as an efficient weapon of killing. Despite that, she does feel a great deal of sympathy for the souls in her home and works endlessly to set them free, even the worst of them, so it’s easy to like her. Plus, Mirren is such a good actress that she makes an arthritic, passive ghost-whisperer seem bad-ass. It’s those eyes, man. Superman’s eye beams are cheap laser pointers by comparison. Sarah is no-nonsense, sharp as a whip, a juggernaut’s persistence, but highly protective of her family, she’s a great character and Mirren’s awesome.
Also, I really enjoyed Snook’s performance too. Once again, Marion is fiercely protective of her family. She doesn’t believe in the spirits that Sarah believes plagues the house, but she is still very loving toward her and is highly distrustful of Eric when he first arrives. She eventually opens up to him, particularly after saving Henry’s life, and leads to a pretty nice scene about what she experienced before arriving in Sarah’s home about her neglectful husband. There’s some really nice subtlety in her line-delivery that makes you think that her husband was far worse than a simple drunk. Even Henry mentions at the dinner table “he deserved it!” or something to that effect. The only question mark with Marion is changing the spelling of her real name, which is “Marian.” and she didn’t go by the name Marian, but rather “Daisy.” I won’t pretend to know why, but it’s still a detail I’m sure would have been appreciated.
Here’s a wonderfully surprising addition that most ghost stories overlook. The antagonistic ghost has motivation! Imagine that! Yeah, Ben (Eamon Farren) has a fairly tragic backstory. He and his two brothers were Confederate soldiers in the war. He lived, but his brothers were killed by the repeating rifle. He exacted his revenge by taking a repeating rifle and killed several innocent people within one of company-owned buildings before he himself was gunned down. But his pain and anger was strong enough to keep him bound to the world of the living and carried on to try and kill Sarah. Granted, it’s questionable why it took him twenty years to get on with it, but it’s still a real backstory and understandable motivations, instead of just a douche-bag dead dude doing douche-bag dead dude stuff. More ghost-centric stories like this could take a few notes.
Despite how under-developed I think Eric’s backstory is with his wife, I have to admit, the climactic scene where he’s in the Garden House confronting his wife is incredibly well-done. There’s certainly a lot of raw emotions coming from Clarke and whoever Laura Brent is, she needs to be in more movies because she is a pretty damn good actress. I especially like how it basically reenacts the events that resulted in him getting shot and her pulling the gun on herself. Certainly this scene halts the film fairly pointlessly. I mean, he’s confronting his grief and his wife while Sarah is getting her ass kicked by Ben. Hell, I almost think that this scene should have been the closing scene, instead of a bullshit nail coming out of a board implying a sequel that will likely not happen.
Now, despite how much I like the film, I can’t deny the problems, as there are many.
For one thing, and this is pretty universal among ghost movies, I don’t understand the point of the first few ghost encounters. The amputated ghost, the Native American coming up the stairs, what are these ghosts doing? They literally show up and do nothing other than be jump-scare fodder. And that one bit with the “intercom” system when Eric hears crying and then that finger comes out… yeah, what? That was pretty stupid. Was this ghost trying to give Eric a haunted wet-willy? It was more silly than scary.
Also, for such a central and integral character to the story, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) is completely useless. He has zero character and his only purpose is literally just to be possessed. He barely says a line, he barely acts. I don’t know how talented this kid is, but if the director couldn’t get this kid to even act like he’s traumatized or scared, whether by possession from a ghost or the witness of his father’s death, then what was the point of the character?
What was the point of Eric’s drug addiction? The correct answer is: none. If I were to hazard a guess, the movie was trying to bring this sense of “is this supernatural, or is this all psychological?” Make Eric a druggie, and challenge if it’s really ghosts, or hallucinations brought on by the drugs. Not the first time it’s been tackled, but okay, not an unworthy attempt if done properly. The problem is… it wasn’t done properly. The audience is let on that this is a supernatural flick in the first scene. When Henry is possessed by a spirit and his eyes are shown to be white and then change back to normal. If the movie wanted to properly maintain the illusion, then that opening scene needed to be cut. And the ghosts that Eric encounters needed to be less obvious that they’re dead people. An easy fix would be if he kept seeing his dead wife while under the influence and somehow weave conversations with her about their previous relationship, generating a deeper understanding of his inner demons and just how tragic her death was.
And, of course, there’s historical inaccuracies. I answered my own questions above. By the end of Civil War (1865), the Winchester rifle hadn’t yet been invented (1866), and certainly had not been broken out to the Union army. Its precursor rifle was the Henry rifle, which Union soldiers did use. And even then, if I’m not misinterpreting the information I’m reading on Wikipedia, the Henry rifle was only privately owned by those who could afford it. Expensive, I take it. Hence, it was neither a military-issued weapon, nor was it very commonly used, rendering the whole point of this movie… pretty pointless, as the focus is the… Winchester rifle, not the Henry rifle. I’m no Civil War expert, but even if my information is watered down and there’s more to it than I’m putting down, the fact is, this movie’s inaccuracies need to be addressed.
So I guess, now that I’m thinking about it, there’s still a way to make this story compelling and historically accurate. I won’t pretend to know why exactly the real Sarah Winchester thought she was cursed and haunted by the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle (was there a series of killing sprees at the time?), but if this was really something that she took seriously, then I think there’s a better story to tell here than the one presented in front of us. But that’s neither here nor there, I guess.
Ben’s powers are inconsistent. They really are. Some basic and obvious powers are that he possesses people. Standard. But he can also present himself in a physical form and grab things tangibly. He can also telekinetically lift and move a bunch of rifles. He can also shake and destroy sections of the house. For one thing, why is he having such a hard time killing the Winchester family?! When he possesses Henry, why didn’t he save some that ammo for a cleaner shot instead of shooting willy-nilly through the walls at her. She’s an old woman and can’t exactly sprint. Why not just round the corner of the staircase and fire a shot? Easy. If he can lift all those rifles in the climax, what the hell is waiting for? Why doesn’t he unload on Sarah and Eric, killing them both? For that matter, I thought firearms weren’t allowed on the grounds? Even if it was in service of the constructed room, why were the rifles loaded? Seems both pointless and stupid, as Sarah admits that she doesn’t always know if the spirits she communicates with are benevolent or evil. And if Ben can telekinetically move those rifles, what’s the point of possessing people? Just grab one for himself and shoot Sarah where she sleeps. Why does he need Henry? For a guy who’s supposed to be hellbent on exacting revenge on the Winchester family for the deaths of his two brothers killed by the Winchester rifle, he isn’t very smart or efficient about his approach.
Overall, I still like the film more than not, but yeah, it’s not a good film. That takes a lot for me to say because I went in the previous two viewings thinking that it was good. But The more I thought about it in this review, the more I saw the problems. Still, I stand by the things that I enjoyed and appreciated. Die-hard horror fans may not like this one, as it’s not particularly scary. Too many things don’t make sense, dumb character choices, pointless plot elements, and historical inaccuracies every which way. But I still like the actors, I appreciate the use of the villainous ghost, and much of the climax saves the film for me. So do I recommend it? Eh, viewer beware. If you want to see the movie, I might say wait for a matinee showing or discount day at your local cinema. Rental or streaming service may be the best way to go. The house that ghosts built has a solid foundation, but is poorly put together.
My honest rating for WINCHESTER: 3/5
PS: Does the story of Sarah Winchester still fascinate you and want a more accurate recounting of her life? Then head on over to Amazon and pick up the book Captive of the Labyrinth, by Mary Jo Ignoffo.