WINCHESTER. Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, and Finn Scicluna-O’Prey. Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig. Rated M (Supernatural themes and violence). 99min.

This semi-biographical, horror film tells the story in thriller format of an eccentric, American heiress, Sarah Lockwood Winchester, who is haunted by spirits inside her huge, gothic mansion. The movie is reputed to be loosely inspired by true events. The film’s production is American-Australian. The real Sarah Winchester died in 1922, and some of the on-location filming occurred in Australia. The Spierig brothers, Michael and Peter, who directed the movie, are also Australian.

Sarah Winchester was the widow of the famed gun manufacturer, William Winchester. The sudden death of her husband, and her child Annie, left Sarah a grieving widow. Sarah was convinced that Winchester, the name of the house she lives in, is cursed by the ghosts of those who died at the hands of Winchester-firearms.

Her house, with over 100 rooms, sits on an isolated stretch of land south of San Francisco. It is seven stories high and constantly under construction. It continually expands, and has been under reconstruction for decades. Sarah lived in the house with her devoted niece, Marion (Sarah Snook), and Marion’s son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), and Sarah believed she should spend her inheritance on expanding the house to appease the spirits of Winchester victims. As more ghosts show up, Sarah built new rooms to house them, and she firmly believed that it required 13 nails to trap vengeful spirits in their rooms.

In 1906, the Winchester company hired a psychologist, Eric Prince (Jason Clarke), to assess Sarah’s mental fitness. Sarah admits to Eric, who is drug-addicted, that she fears ghosts and that she considers them real, and tells him how she is managing to keep them at bay. She has kept files on all those killed by Winchester rifles, and the only room she has finished in her mansion is the one that she has packed with every Winchester gun.

The ghosts of people killed in the past occupy the house, while Sarah, Eric, and Henry try to stay alive, despite periods of demonic possession of Henry, whom Eric and Marion rescue from violent acts. Eric carries around with him a bullet fired from a Winchester rifle that was lodged inside his body from an accident in the past, and which left him clinically dead for just 3 min. This renders him an ambiguous victim for the ghosts of those who have died by Winchester guns.

The film tries stock in the trade scare-tactics to frighten viewers, and builds up its tension by indulging in a wide variety of horror scenarios. It leaves no scary-movie-cliche unused. Ghosts jump out behind mirrors and furniture, throw furniture around, and possess those staying in the house, and they lead to violent action, some with the spilling of blood. The ghosts are strongest at midnight, when Sarah converses with them so that they can tell her how to reconstruct their rooms to be the same as those in which they were killed. However, there are real people behind the story of this film. Sarah Winchester is known as the owner of one of the most eccentric homes in America, and visitors can still see the “Winchester Mystery House” for a fee.

This is a movie, that trades on patches of reality, and does its best to build fear around them. It engages heavily in occult spiritualism. Although inspired by actual people and events, it liberally laces them with myth, superstition, hear-say, and legend. It is scripted poorly, and Helen Mirren struggles to show the reality behind the superstition. Mirren does her best with the character of Sarah Winchester, but her efforts are lost somewhere in the thinness of the movie. There is good fantasy contained in the imagination lying behind this movie, but it has been developed by the Spierig Brothers in a relatively unsophisticated way.

This is a picture, at the end of the day, that earnestly preaches gun control. The movie tells us that   “rifles don’t discriminate the guilty from the innocent”, and “violence can’t bring justice”. But it hides those very important messages in a routine display of the horror genre.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting StudioCanal Pty. Ltd.

February 22nd., 2018

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