Winchester

Based on a true story – or as the movies guardedly have it these days: “inspired by true events” – Winchester hurls Helen Mirren into her first horror movie.

With 129 acting credits to her name on IMDb it’s amazing to find Dame Helen hasn’t really done horror before, although Excalibur was a bit scary, The Cook The Thief was baroque and Red 2 and Collateral Beauty were total shockers.

Here, she plays Sarah Winchester, a spinster all in black lace, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune who has now – it’s 1906 – hermitted herself away in a big house which is in a continual state of build and repair, all day and night.

Into this eccentric abode is sent a San Francisco psychiatrist Dr Price, played by that walking potato Jason Clarke. Price’s experiments with laudanum begin to seem like a very bad idea when he starts seeing ghosts in the mirror, complete with loud jump scare music. He’s there to assess Ms Winchester’s mental state as the board of the rifle company seek to wrest control.

Sarah Winchester is indeed caught in an alarming limbo, communing with the dead spirits gunned down by her company’s legacy, the repeating rifle, the weapon which won the Wild West. Even their corporate diversification into roller skate production isn’t without a victim or two.

Ms Winchester’s spirit connection goes further – the ghosts are driving her to re-construct the rooms in which they were shot, so she’s forever adding to her house, drawing up plans and ripping down extensions until it’s an Escher-like maze of stairways and dead ends. This “house that spirits built” is still around and apparently you can visit it, in San Jose… if you know the way, of course.

Mirren does her best to bring some gravitas to the role, although I’m not sure that’s what it needed. She may have got the Oscar for The Queen, but she’s no scream queen, nor is she giving it the whole Miss Havisham scary spinster camp. A bit more Bette Davies would have been nice.

Mirren’s Winchester is still enough to give the opiated Dr Price the runaround, while her nephew Henry is infected with evil spirits and tries to sleepwalk off a roof. Price eventually realises his own connection to the house and why the conservatory is off limits.

There’s such a heap of explanatory dialogue involved in trying to set up then solve the logic of this ghostly plot, much of which involves hammering 13 nails into the doors to seal off the rooms – but it is still never clear and we never get to know the real architecture or lay-out of the house, which, if better directors than the Spierig Brothers had been at the helm, should clearly have been a character in the movie, a sort of Homes under the Hammer horror.

Instead we build to a climax of levitating rifles and rocking chairs and expository old newspaper cuttings, before a ludicrous assembly of upset ghosts, including a slave in chains, an angry Red Indian (he’s holding a tomahawk in case) and various people who look like they’ve come out the back of Mr Ben’s shop. Mirren’s sternest test, I think, is to get through this dialogue without laughing. 

What’s most interesting about the film is the expression of a strong anti-gun sentiment, the guilt that’s eating away at Aunt Sarah. And yet the movies, like America, are built on the gun and while this film wants to ram home its anti-gun message, it still fetishises the weapons and culminates in a volley of bullets from ghostly trigger fingers. Winchester’s a misfire, whichever way you wield it.

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