Ensconced in her sprawling San Jose, California mansion, eccentric firearm heiress Sarah Winchester (Dame Helen Mirren) believes she is haunted by the souls of people killed by the Winchester repeating rifle.
Inspired by true events. On an isolated stretch of land fifty miles outside of San Francisco sits the most haunted house in the world. Built by Sarah Winchester (Dame Helen Mirren) heiress to the Winchester fortune, it is a house that knows no end. Constructed in an incessant twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week mania for decades, it stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To an outsider it looks like a monstrous monument to a disturbed woman's madness. But Sarah is not building for herself, for her niece Marion (Sarah Snook), nor for the brilliant Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who she has summoned to the house. She is building a prison, an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts, and the most terrifying amongst them have a score to settle with the Winchesters.
Intriguing blend of true history, legend and outright fiction
This film has nothing to do with the cathedral city in Hampshire. When William Winchester, the owner of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, died in 1881 he left his vast fortune to his widow Sarah, making her one of the wealthiest women in America. Soon afterwards Sarah Winchester left her home in New Haven, Connecticut and moved to San Jose, California where she began building a vast, sprawling mansion. Work on the house continued until Sarah's own death in 1922. The building, today known as the Winchester Mystery House, still exists and is a popular tourist attraction; it is noted for oddities such as staircases and passageways which lead nowhere. It is said to have been left unfinished at Sarah Winchester's death, but it lacks any coherent plan and probably never would have been "finished" even if its owner had lived for many more years.
That much is fact. For many people, however, the main interest of the Winchester Mystery House lies in the legends which have grown up around it (and, indeed, had started to grow up even during Sarah's lifetime). It was said that the house was haunted by the ghosts of all those who had been killed by guns manufactured by the Winchester company and that Sarah's obsessive compulsion to add yet more rooms to her ever-growing house was in fact an attempt to placate them. The mansion still has the reputation of being one of the most haunted buildings in America.
The film, which is set in 1902 and has Sarah Winchester as its main character, assumes that the legends are true. (A supernatural horror film based around the assumption that ghost stories are all a load of superstitious nonsense would not, I suspect, be a great success). The officers of the Winchester company, still based in Connecticut, have heard rumours that Mrs Winchester, who still holds a controlling interest in the company even though she lives on the other side of the country, has gone mad and that she believes herself to be haunted by evil spirits. They therefore appoint Eric Price, a psychiatrist, to examine her, hoping that he will declare her to be insane which will allow them to remove her from any position of control in the company. (Was Price's surname chosen in homage to the late Vincent Price, a noted actor in horror films?)
Price is that familiar figure from horror films, the sceptic who is proved wrong. He initially believes that ghost stories are all a load of superstitious nonsense, but his acquaintance with Sarah Winchester and her extraordinary home soon persuades him to change his mind, and it becomes clear that he and Sarah are indeed threatened by vengeful spirits. Particularly malevolent is the ghost of a young man who, to avenge the deaths of his brothers, Confederate soldiers cut down by the rifles of the Union army, killed several employees of the Winchester Company at their headquarters and was in his turn shot dead by the police.
The film received largely negative reviews from the critics, but I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I was going to. The cinematic ghost story can be a predictable, cliché-ridden genre, but "Winchester" brings a certain originality to it. Whereas the likes to "The Haunting in Connecticut" and the recent rehash of "The Amityville Horror" tried (very dubiously) to pass themselves off as "true" stories, "Winchester" builds upon an intriguing blend of true history, legend and outright fiction to produce something of much greater interest, a story which does not leave the viewer with a "seen-it-all-before" feeling. The film-makers were greatly assisted by their coup in persuading an actress as distinguished as Dame Helen Mirren, an actress you wouldn't normally associate with haunted-house horror movies, to star in the leading role. She invests Sarah with a good deal of dignity, making her a woman who is eminently sane, even if much of the world believes her to be mad. Dame Helen receives good support from Jason Clarke, an actor I had not previously come across, as Price, a man haunted by a personal tragedy, and one which he shares with Sarah. "Winchester" does have its share of horror clichés, including the normal spooky music and camera tricks, but overall it is one of the better recent examples of the genre. 6/10
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