The ominous house, and a great pun on building



I was on the fence about seeing WINCHESTER today.  I rolled into Jamaica, Queens with a large chunk of time to kill before the 4:45 showing, but time wasn’t the only issue.  I can’t stand Helen Mirren, I’m no fan of PG-13 horror, and I can take or leave most ghost stories.  But I had just watched DAYBREAKERS last night, and I find the Spierig Bros. to be really interesting directors.  So I called X Chris, who said I should give it a shot.  I did, and I found it to be an entertaining little haunted house flick, nothing groundbreaking, but with its small share of twists that were just enough to keep me intrigued.


WINCHESTER’s intrigue starts with the fact that some of it is based in fact:  after her husband died in 1881, Sarah Winchester took an eight-room house and had it under constant construction until her death in 1922, transforming it into a mansion with more than 100 rooms.  The movie’s conceit is that, racked with guilt, the heiress added one room for every casualty of a Winchester repeating rifle, hence turning it into the House that Ghosts Built.  The other Winchester shareholders, held under her sway as the widow owns 51% of the company, have sent psychiatrist Dr. Eric Price to prove her incompetent so they can take the company away from her.  Upon arrival, Price must deal with the eccentricities both of the house and Winchester, as well as her niece and the niece’s son.  But will he have to deal with actual ghosts as well?


Clarke as Price, haunted in his own right


The Spierigs, who also wrote the script, try to keep the answer at bay for a long time, by way of making Price an unreliable source.  Broken by the death of his wife, a fraud in his own estimation, the doctor has turned to laudanum and doesn’t trust his own eyes when weird visions appear to him.  As Price, Jason Clarke does a nice job selling what an unsure mess he is.  Are his apparitions a product of the laudanum and subsequent withdrawal from it, or are they real?  The Spierigs will tip their hand later, but they and Price do a solid job of keeping the good doctor unbalanced in the earlier goings.  Price is the most interesting character in the movie.  He’s damaged to the point where he’s forsaken doing his job properly in return for a paycheck.  Drugs and alcohol have become an escape, but they leave him empty. The film offers him a chance at redemption, and his arc is the through line among all the madness.


A restrained Mirren as the haunted Sarah Winchester


Sarah Winchester, much like him, is haunted by the deaths of loved ones.  After the passing of her husband and sole daughter, she started building rooms for each of the spirits of those killed by a Winchester rifle.  Price isn’t buying the supernatural, but one thing is sure, in that Sarah is convinced.  She stalks the mansion in a black mourning dress, with full veil concealing her face;  speaks of shadows in her appointments with Price;  and scrawls out designs for new rooms in a trancelike state.  What I liked most is that if she’s right, and the ghosts are real, she’s definitely insane for building a home for them in our world.  Mirren is more reserved than usual, and brings a gravity to the part.  She’s just as committed to Sarah’s belief in ghosts as Sarah is.  Her interactions with Price are great, as she plumbs his soul just as much as he does her sanity.  Some reveals about the nature of Prices’ wife’s death, and his personal connection to the madness of the mansion, add some nice depth to their story.  WINCHESTER never really scared me, but the human drama carried it for me.


Gratuitous Ethan Hawke in DAYBREAKERS


So what we have here is a pretty standard ghost story with a fascinating underpinning and some talented actors. The Spierigs also do a great job with the visuals—I loved their atmospheric style here just as much as I did in DAYBREAKERS, and they apparently built a real house in Australia to sub as the Winchester Mansion—and though they rely occasionally on jump scares, the piece is more about mood.  The brothers are a talented team, as I remarked when I applauded them on the misdirection when a mirror keeps swinging to reflect a chair, with a payoff that was not how I expected.  There’s nothing really frightening about their movies, but their output is several cuts above much of the work-for-hire hack work coming out as horror the last decade.  They have a knack for storytelling which is in full display in WINCHESTER.


“Is this just a ghost story, or a message movie?”  I asked myself at one point.  People may walk out thinking this is an anti-gun movie, given how Sarah Winchester blames her family’s guns for all the deaths they cause.  I could see that point-of-view, as she’s clearly convinced of it, and the movie’s been released just months after another deadly killing spree in Las Vegas.  But unlike DAYBREAKERS’ social commentary on big business, WINCHESTER’s take on guns seems more a view of the character than the filmmakers.  It’s not preachy, which is good, considering I could make the same argument in the inventors and manufactures of cars, electricity or, as the film suggests, roller skates, and it would fall just as flat.


Instead, I found fascination in carpentry.  Having just written a piece on faulty logistics in union work in a lousy film, I loved the carpentry on display here.  Tradesmen who could’ve been the forebears of my father and brother are constantly toiling on the house, building rooms and hallways that don’t always jibe with each other.  Both exterior and interior of the seven-story mansion are enthralling from a carpentry vantage point, with one stairway leading to a dead stop at a wooden ceiling, and a spiraling pathway to Sarah’s room that had Price smiling at its oddity.  The Spierigs do a stellar job of making the house a crucial part of the story through design, instead of just telling us it’s haunted.


WINCHESTER isn’t quite as interesting or fun as DAYBREAKERS, and it’s not a flick I’d watch over and over again.  But it was a nice way to spend a few hours at the theatre today, and a reminder that the Spierig Bros. are talents who can spin a good old fashioned ghost yarn, and add in just enough twists to keep me entertained.


–Phil Fasso


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