Winchester: Movie review

The Winchester Mystery House is a favorite tourist attraction in San Jose California, where my wife grew up. When we’d go visit her family, we sometimes took it in. It’s a very strange house, a mansion, one of those ‘eccentric millionaire’ extravaganza’s, like the Hearst Castle, or, in Orem, the Bastian home. The Winchester was constructed by Sarah Winchester, wife of firearms business mogul William Winchester. After his death, in 1884, she continued to build, until her death in 1924. She supervised the construction personally, did not employ an architect, and the result is a seven story mansion that can best be described as haphazard. The house was, in many respects, ahead of its time, with working indoor toilets, forced air heating, a unique communications system, and elevators.

Mrs. Winchester was said to have believed the house to be haunted by the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles. She was, in short, a strange but fascinating woman, and both she and the house seem well worth a movie treatment. Especially with the right actress playing Mrs. Winchester. Dame Helen Mirren strikes me as an ideal choice.

The film we saw last night, Winchester, was, in nearly every respect, a disappointment. Its Rotten Tomatoes score was 13%, a score I found unsurprising. The German twin brother directing team of Michael and Peter Spierig took the fascinating psychological drama of Mrs. Winchester, and turned it into a paint-by-numbers gothic horror flick, all jump cuts and spooky music. The cast, beginning with Dame Helen, were wasted, and included the marvelous character actor  Jason Clarke, Australian actress Sarah Snook, and a couple of superb actors in minor roles: Angus Sampson as Winchester’s construction foreman, and a wonderfully sepulchral young actor I’ve never heard of before, Eamon Farron, as a particularly malevolent ghost. The Spierigs had a wonderful story to tell, and the right cast to tell it, and apparently could think of nothing better to do with it than make a creepy schlock-fest.

Because, lurking beneath all the creaking doors and grotesque imagery, is a fascinating meditation on America’s obsession with firearms. Mrs. Winchester kept detailed records of every person killed by a Winchester rifle. By her own admission (and to her shame), her records were inevitably incomplete, but they haunted her. The scenes where Mirren shows Clarke (playing a psychologist sent to evaluate her for the company’s board), her detailed ledgers, every gun death obsessed over, were completely compelling. She believed that by continuously building and rebuilding her mansion, she was welcoming the ghosts of gun victims. She would invite them into her rooms, then nail the doors shut (with 13 nails, exactly, every time), allow them room and space to find peace and transition to the spirit world. In the meantime, she would express her remorse and heartbreak over their deaths. What an astonishing continuing act of penance and contrition! Would that the makers of AR-17s felt a tiny fraction of that measure of repentance.

Snook plays Mrs. Winchester’s niece, Marion, who lives at the mansion as a particularly fierce defender of her aunt’s eccentricities. But her son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), is badly affected by the ghosts, and most especially by the mansion’s latest apparition, Ben (Farren), a mass shooter gunned down by police. Ben’s a particularly powerful and evil ghost, with, we’re given to understand, the spectral power to bring about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Except, of course, Clarke’s psychologist (Dr. Price, if it matters), has kept the bullet that his wife used to shoot him, resulting in a near-death experience, and giving him, see, the ability to both see and banish ghosts. By shooting it. With a Winchester rifle. And the very bullet his wife used. None of that makes a lick of sense, and was frankly more risible than spooky.

But imagine a psychological thriller, again starring that mansion, Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, in which we never actually saw any ghosts? In which the existence of ghosts was implied, but not made overt? In which we’re never sure just what’s going on, but in which Mrs. Winchester really does believe, and continues her manic building project as a kind of expiation? And a movie that really did plumb the depths of her feelings of guilt? And, of course, our shared guilt as Americans? Because nobody else does this, right? Just lets whoever have whatever guns they want? And proclaims its unique Christian heritage, while arming the world?

It’s a shame. Winchester is just another scary movie.  We’ll all have forgotten it existed three months from now.  But, my goodness, there’s a wonderful movie lurking beneath it. Wrong directors, perhaps, wrong studio heads, wrong production company? Who knows. It’s just a shame. Sarah Winchester deserves better.

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