‘Winchester’: Ghostly History & Sketchy Travelogue

PHOTO CAPTIONS:  Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke star in the Gothic melodrama 'Winchester,' in theatres now. The film explores the history of the famed house, with touches of the supernatural.

PHOTO CAPTIONS:
Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke star in the Gothic melodrama ‘Winchester,’ in theatres now. The film explores the history of the famed house, with touches of the supernatural.

   By Sandra Olmsted

In the directing brothers Michael and Peter Spierig’s Winchester, these German-Australian filmmakers explore the history of the famed Winchester House and provide more history, if movies are history, than travelogue.

Their film is not shot inside the Winchester House although the audience does get a feel for the mindset of the women behind the odd structure and some feeling for the place. Fifty miles outside of San Francisco, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), the guilt-ridden heiress to the Winchester Repeating Rifle fortune, builds and rebuilds her massive house to appease the ghosts of those killed by guns her family manufactures.

The Winchester House’s staircases go nowhere and doors open to air or brick walls. No wonder the executives, bankers, and lawyers for the gun manufacturer want to have Sarah declared insane and take her 51% controlling interest in the company.

To that end, in 1906, they hire Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a grieving widower whose wife died mysteriously. Since her death, the once renown doctor has buried himself in laudanum and orgies with hookers. Sarah actually knows a secret about Eric, and she chooses him to do her psych evaluate because she’s savvier than the rest of the stockholders think.

Although Eric has been offered a substantial bonus for the evaluation that the stockholders want, once he begins to experience petrifying “hallucinations,” he may not be as willing to write Sarah off as crazy. Soon, Sarah takes his laudanum away, saying that he must have a clear mind to function in the house.

Sarah Snook and Finn Scicluna-O’Prey as Marion and her son Henry in 'Winchester.'

Sarah Snook and Finn Scicluna-O’Prey as Marion and her son Henry in ‘Winchester.’

Eric also meets Sarah’s niece, Marion Marriott (Sarah Snook), the mother son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), who both live with Sarah. Marion, a widow, fully understands and experiences the same events that Sarah does; however, mostly through her son Henry. Henry, who saw his father die violently, has recently been “possessed” at time by a spirit that prompts him to sing eerily “Beautiful Dreamer.” Henry’s possession leads him into danger and is related to the vengeful ghost of a Confederate soldier Ben Block (Eamon Farren).

Sarah knows that Ben is the most powerful and angry spirit she has ever encountered. Ben’s loss of his two brothers in the Civil War, where the Winchester rifle gave the Union soldiers an advantage, seems motivation enough, yet there’s more to his story, which leads to the climax of the film.

While the Spierig brothers obviously focus on the anti-gun message that Sarah Winchester, at least according to this film, shared, they miss the mark on whether Winchester is a horror film or Gothic melodrama. Set during a time when Spiritualism was popular, Winchester does provide a window into the beliefs and practices of those, who like Sarah, believe that the veil between the living and the dead can be thinner at some times and places than others.

Winchester House before the 1906 earthquake.

Winchester House before the 1906 earthquake.

Winchester does, therefore, provide a number of plot twists and surprises in addition to the jump-and-get-you scares. The Spierig brothers may not have perfected their horror film chops, yet they do provide an entertaining and interesting film and a little food for thought.

A CBS Films release, Winchester is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements and runs a terrifically entertaining 99 minutes. Winchester is in theaters now.

 

 

Winchester House more recently.

Winchester House more recently.



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