“The house can be overwhelming. Do keep up.”
When I was a kid my maternal grandparents gave me a book of weirdnesses. Oddities. I think it was called The Book of the Strange. I assume I’d shown some interest, but I sometimes wonder how much of my love for the unusual was a natural outgrowth of my personality and how much the (sometimes inadvertent) influence of my upbringing. That book had a ton of random information on things like UFOs, genetics, ball lightning, Judge Crater, cryonics and the Tunguska fireball. All in bite size chunks easily digested by an eager young brain.
I don’t remember if one of the segments (perhaps in the Parapsychology section) was about the Winchester Mystery House or not, but I can trace anything I read about the place, and my desire to do so, directly back to that paperback with the blue cover and it’s promise of a world full of unexplained and unexplainable mysteries.
The Winchester house, with its seemingly endless succession of rooms, hallways, doors and windows, is – like the pyramids of Egypt or Machu Pichu – a place I’ve wanted to visit since I first heard about it. Supposedly built on the advice of a spiritualist by the widow of William Wirt Winchester, the house was constructed on an ongoing basis using the vast wealth she had inherited. The house was, at one point, seven stories tall and contains such oddities as stairs that go nowhere, a door that opens on the outside (even though it’s on the second floor) and windows (including one by Louis Tiffany) that are set only to look out on other rooms. The story goes that Sarah Winchester was told to build the house for herself and the spirits of those who had been killed by Winchester rifles, and that much of the construction was dictated to her by the spirits themselves via nightly seances.
It’s just as likely that the house was simply built by a bereaved woman with no architectural training and more money (over half a billion dollars worth in today’s currency rate) than she knew what to do with, building over mistakes and tearing down parts of the construction while leaving other parts intact. I submit that a house constructed essentially by stream of consciousness is just as interesting as a home for ghosts. I’d still like to see it.
While I haven’t seen all of the material inspired by the Winchester House I’m always interested (and just saw the “Nuka World” expansion to Fallout 4 has a Winchester House inspired location, so I’ll have to check that out). One of my favorite things was an issue of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, which included a Winchester knockoff and the phrase “the sound of hammers must never stop.” I always think that applies to the actual Winchester legend, though it does not.
All of this is to explain why I ended up watching a film I’d heard was not very good.
I watched Winchester streaming on Netflix. It can be rented or purchased on a number of other streaming sites, including Redbox, Amazon and iTunes. There’s a Blu-ray release as well, but it’s pretty bare bones.
A psychiatrist, Dr. David Price (Jason Clarke) is hired by the board of directors of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to assess Sarah Winchester’s (Helen Mirren) mental fitness to retain her controlling interest in the company. Since the deaths of her child and husband, Sarah Winchester has been building a house, you see. A very special house…
Winchester looks very good. The sets and the cinematography (by Ben Nott) create a wonderfully claustrophobic impression, enhanced by the cluttered Victorian/Edwardian details. It all feels like the setting for a fantastic M. R. James inspired ghost story, with garden rooms and long, dark hallways lit only be candle light. The house is very much a character in its own right, and it does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to setting the mood.
Not much else does, however. Clarke and Mirren (and Sarah Snook as Mary’s niece Marion) are fine actors – Mirren, in particular, elevates every scene she’s in – but they’re stuck in a story that seems intent on wasting all of that setup on cheap scares, unearned emotional drama and tired plot points. There will be gasps of visible breath when ghosts are present. Ghosts (and those possessed by them) will have clouded eyes. If a camera pans across a room and then pans back you can be guaranteed that there will be a ‘shocking’ ghost face directly in the frame presently. Don’t worry, the rising volume of the score will let you know it’s coming, if you’ve gotten bored enough to lose interest.
Dr. Price is a skeptic, of course, though his addiction to Laudanum after the suicide of his wife means he has convenient hallucinations to pin the incredibly obvious ghost appearances on. He also ‘died for three minutes’ after his wife shot him with the same weapon – a Winchester repeating rifle, naturally. Despite his ongoing and increasing experience of the supernatural Dr. Price will deny it and continue to act as if everything is rational because that is what the script demands he do.
I did very much enjoy the character of Sarah Winchester, even though the script requires her to be both a sharp-minded woman of exceptional insight as well as an emotional mess blinded to the danger her house poses to herself and her family. She’s unfortunately reduced to yelling “do you see him?!” and exhorting a violent ghost that’s attempted to murder her several times to “let go and move on!”
The House, you see, is a series of rooms dedicated to recreating the circumstances where each ghost died. It’s a way to force them to come to terms with their death and help them move on. Some ghosts find it difficult when faced with the room where they died, though, and those ghosts are locked in by bars with thirteen nails until they’ve… gotten over it? Learned their lesson? Sarah’s just as bad at psychiatry as she is architecture.
After a number of scare-quote “spooky” events – including the young nephew being possessed a number of times – the 1906 earthquake hits and a violent ghosts makes his final attempt at removing the woman whom he blames for his death (and his brother’s death, I think). There’ll be a ham-handed connection with the good Dr.’s wife, his own death, and a bullet he keeps. There’ll be a revelation about a character that is supposed to be a game-changer, but is simply a “wait, that makes no sense…” moment. And there’s a happy ending. (With a requisite stinger of a “some rooms hold violent ghosts and the earthquake has damaged them!” scene.)
I wasn’t angry at the ending, just… disappointed. The film was 99 minutes long, but damn if it didn’t feel a lot longer.
The Bottom Line
How can a movie do so many things right and so many things wrong at the same time? Winchester has a fantastic setting, a good cast, excellent cinematography, decent special effects – and yet it fails at the most basic requirement of a horror movie. It’s not scary. It also fails at the most basic requirement of any story at all – it’s not really that entertaining.