Review by C.J. Bunce
I love ghost stories at the movies. Whether it’s lighter faire like Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie, a favorite version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, or the Disney favorite The Watcher in the Woods, or darker stories, like Guillermo del Toro taking on the Gothic mystery genre in Crimson Peak, count me in. We’ve reviewed some good ghost stories here at borg.com, including The Woman in Black, the aforementioned Portrait of Jennie and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and television series like Marchlands, Lightfields, and Wynonna Earp. From the ghost pirates and pirate ghosts in the Pirates of the Caribbean series to the ghost army in The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, a good ghost story must have a believable visual take on the actual spectres, but it also needs to provide an appropriate level of spooks and an interesting story. Ghosts have been featured in romps like R.I.P.D., Ghost Rider, Beetlejuice, and Ghostbusters, darker ghost tales like The Crow and The Others, and even romances like Always, and City of Angels. Some great, some only good, I count all of these worth watching. Critics rarely give credit to the genre, with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense as an exception. But count Winchester, now in theaters, as one of the good ones.
Although the ghost story is a subgenre of horror, if you lean more toward slasher flicks, monster gore, and terror (think Saw or Scream series), if you want to scream out loud in the theater, and true ghost stories aren’t really your thing, Winchester may not be for you. But if you want a nicely creepy setting, a throwback style ghost story movie, and a cast of excellently realized characters, Helen Mirren’s Sarah Lancaster, Jason Clarke’s Dr. Price, Sarah Snook’s Marian Marriott, and Eamon Farren’s Ben Block make the cut. This is not just a pile-on of gotchas you’d find in a typical teen slasher film, but it’s peppered with jumps and starts. Its setting, its costumes, and its roots in reality will keep you on the edge of your seat, but it also flows at a steady pace. A simple tale with a few twists, Winchester is most on par with The Woman in Black, but it also dabbles in the realm that will appeal to many fans of The Sixth Sense–even the plots share some similarities.
Do you like haunted houses? The famed real-life Winchester haunted house in San Jose is the right place for the ultimate haunted house tale. The truth of Winchester only adds to the suspense and intrigue: Heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, Sarah Winchester became one of the world’s wealthiest women of the 19th century. Her husband died in 1881 and she then proceeded to spend her fortune on a sprawling mansion over the next 38 years, a mansion that was never finished. And why? Some evidence indicates it’s because Sarah Winchester thought the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles were haunting her. Lore of the house is that she built extra rooms onto her mansion to trick the ghosts. She was a bit of a recluse and known by those near her to be superstitious, and this is evident with the number 13 appearing throughout the house windows, such as rooms with 13 panes of glass, ceilings with 13 panels, and staircases with only 13 steps. And workers removed and added new rooms to the mansion until her death in 1922. Where there are gaps in the story, the directors–the Spierig Brothers–fill in the blanks visualizing the mythos of Sarah Winchester’s supposed vision of the truth, asking the question: If her superstitions are related to her strange house design, what story could explain this unique house? Despite the inclusion of ghosts, nearly everything can be explained by science, and much can be left to the viewer to make his/her own call. But if you’re game, couple an heiress who truly believes she is cursed and a doctor whose own past demons and drug use make him susceptible to some suggestions of a supernatural nature, and you’ll find an intriguing ghost story.
Winchester is directed by The Spierig Brothers, Michael and Peter Spierig, who also contributed to the script by Tom Vaughan (Unstoppable). Peter also created the musical score, which includes all the appropriate historical melodies and spooky vibes that support the story.
Jason Clarke contributes a character that is not simply a stereotype psychiatrist, brought in by the Winchester board of directors to learn whether Ms. Lancaster is sane enough to continue to lead her company. If you think seventy-three year old actress Helen Mirren plays merely “a spooky old lady in a chair,” think again. Mirren not only adds the gravitas to the film, she’s fully engaged here in the drama and suspense. Each stare, gesture, and whisper is sure to make even the most skeptical film goer give her the benefit of the doubt. Her Sarah Winchester is completely sympathetic, too. After all, she didn’t invent the Winchester firearms that killed thousands by the time she inherited the company’s fortune. Then again, she did live off the money paid for by those weapons. Vaughan’s story isn’t bogged down in the politics of the situation–whether someone who is part of putting guns into the hands of mass murderers should bare some personal price. But Sarah Winchester’s real-life, self-imposed penalty–if that’s what this crazy house is–will make everyone assess her circumstance, her blame, and her family’s role in history. The photograph of the real Sarah Winchester at the end of the film is just a reminder that the curse wasn’t merely the stuff of a ghost story for her.
Winchester arrived in theaters this past weekend and is in wide release nationally.