There’s a genuinely fascinating true story underpinning the horror movie Winchester. In 1881, 15 years after her newborn daughter passed away, the husband of Sarah Winchester (played here by Helen Mirren) died of tuberculosis, leaving her a $20 million fortune (or more than $500 million in today’s money) and 50 percent of the Winchester company.
With that fortune, Sarah Winchester moved with her sister and niece to an eight-room farmhouse in San Jose, California. Legend has it that a psychic had told Winchester that the spirits of all those killed by Winchester rifles would haunt her forever, so after she bought the home, she kept adding rooms to it in an effort to house all of those spirits. Work continued on the house for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 38 years (although, biographers dispute the 24/7 claim).
In reality, Winchester did build a lot of rooms in the house, and she did have a fondness for the number 13, and construction did continue on the house for 38 years, although Winchester herself moved out of it after the San Francisco earthquake, which trapped her inside a bedroom for several hours (the Winchester house is now a tourist attraction and a National Historic Landmark).
That combination of fact and legend combines to form the basis for the Spierig Brothers’ horror film, Winchester, which leans heavily into the myths surrounding the property and suggests that the house was, indeed, haunted by the victims of the Winchester repeating rifle.
In the film, a therapist (Jason Clarke), who abuses opiates, is sent to the Winchester House to determine whether Sarah Winchester is of sound mind and body, on behalf of the Winchester board, which doesn’t exactly agree with Sarah Winchester’s decision making (she has reservations about the manufacture of guns, which presents some friction in a company famous for making guns).
The therapist, Erik Prince, has some Winchester history of his own — in an altercation with his mentally ill wife, Prince was shot with a Winchester rifle and died for three minutes before he was revived. That particular piece of fiction is crucial to the movie, as Prince’s flirtation with death allows him to see the spirits that are haunting the Winchester Mansion and that subsequently possess the young son of Sarah Winchester’s niece. Prince sees dead people, which is nice because no one else can. Winchester then plays out in typical horror movie fashion until the climactic scene set during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
OK, right, but is it good? Not really!
There’s some promise in it, thanks mostly to Jason Clarke, who delivers his standard horror-movie dialogue with enough of a glimmer to give the film a lighter edge through the first two acts. The Spierig Brothers (Jigsaw) also clearly come from the James Wan school of jump scares, because Winchester is littered throughout with them, although the movie itself doesn’t offer much in the way of actual horror.
The watchable first two acts also give way to a generic horror movie climax involving lots of bangs, crashes, and a staid boogeyman, here a soldier who was killed after shooting to death multiple people in the Winchester factory, owing to his belief that the Winchester rifle was responsible for the death of his brothers in the war. In fact, that last act skids completely off the rails, and poor Helen Mirren is asked to do work that is far beneath her talents in what is clearly a paycheck role.
Winchester is not a particularly good movie, though at least it is not a bad film of the boring, atmospheric school of horror. There are enough LOUD NOISES to keep viewers awake. Clarke delivers a nice enough performance, Mirren is serviceable at least until the third act, and it features another fun turn from Angus Sampson, who is always a delight to see. Unfortunately, however, the Spierig Bros. take an intriguing real-life figure in Sarah Winchester and fritter her history away on another generic January horror release.