Before we get into my thoughts on the film, let me go over the plot in just a few words.
When Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) starts to experience supernatural goings on in her home, the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms company deem it necessary to have her evaluated by a psychiatrist. Mrs. Winchester selects the somewhat emotionally damage Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke). He’s invited to stay at the house, along with Sarah’s niece, Marion Marriott and her son Henry. Through a few sessions and casual dinner conversations, Dr. Price learns that Sarah Winchester has been keeping this house under constant construction with specific details added here and there in order to keep order among the spirits in her home. When her grand-nephew, Henry, starts sleepwalking and doing generally homicidal things, Dr. Price insists that they take him to a hospital, but Mrs. Winchester is adamant that they stay and counteract the spiritual influences present in Henry’s body. Price thinks she’s crazy, until he recognizes that one of Winchester’s servants is kind of dead. He starts seeing several other ghosts, including his wife. He and Sarah combat the spirit of a confederate man whose brothers were killed by Winchester rifles. They exorcise the spirit, and everyone lives relatively happily ever after, except Sarah, who will apparently have to fend off vengeful spirits for the rest of her life.
Perhaps the best way to analyze this movie is to talk about the things I thought were done well and follow it up with the things that weren’t.
The visuals and cinematic color palate were well-chosen, painting a very convincing portrait of a Gothic ghost story. It was a nice return to the classical Haunted house stories attributable to early horror. The set dressing lent a lot of authenticity to the Winchester Mystery House, both inside and out. In addition, the costuming seemed appropriate to the fashion of 1906.
Helen Mirren, who dropped her British dialect in favor of a very light trans-Atlantic drawl, carried the story as well as she possibly could. There is one point where her possessed grand-nephew is attempting to shoot her through a stairway, and failing that, attempts to beat her with the rifle. It’s some of the most convincing stuff in the whole film. There were a few times, however, that her action scenes didn’t quite match up to how she seemed to be feeling. Like being able to stand up perfectly well after being thrown into a glass display case. She also seemed to have all the exposition in her pocket, as though her character had read ahead in the script, but more on that later.
On to the things that didn’t mesh well for me. Firstly, a small nitpick in regard to the speaking quality. I know that Hollywood doesn’t care at all about sounding authentic. They want language that is going to be easy for the audience to understand. And I also realize things could have been a lot worse. But there were no dialogue clues, other than people saying “it’s 1906”, that would have led you to believe this movie took place in the past. No slang sprinkled in, almost no references to the technology at the time, just nothing! Even Mrs. Winchester, who is significantly older than all the other characters is perfectly in-sync with their manner of speaking. It’s a small gripe, but it has always bothered me in period pieces.
That being said, there are much bigger fish in the barrel to shoot. Like the fact that the entire conflict is contingent upon very misplaced vengeance. Ben Block, the above mentioned Confederate, lost his two brothers in the war against the Union army. So, rather than going after the platoon that shot them, the general of the Union, or even the president, he decides it’s much easier to go after the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. And when he dies in a police shoot-out as a result of that, his spirit decides that Sarah is his ultimate target!
The worst part of this flimsy plot is that Sarah Winchester already knew that it was Block haunting her. She had his newspaper clipping readily available when Dr. Price came looking for it after his encounter with him. How convenient! In fact, Mrs. Winchester seemed to know everything right away, including personal information that wouldn’t be readily available regarding characters she barely knew. She knew that; Price’s wife had killed herself with a Winchester rifle, she knew that he had been shot accidentally with the same rifle and died for exactly three minutes, and she knew that that was ultimately what would stop Corporal Block’s haunting spree. While I understand that forcing the audience to sit through another research scene, like those found in many other horror movies, might seem unbearable. But so is the idea of her character just having all the answers to complicated problems!
There were a few more things that ticked me off during the course of events as well. Things like Waifu Ex Machina, who just showed up inside the Winchester mansion to tell Price to remember this story about a mule whose terrible owner shoveled dirt on top of it until it could climb out. This led Price to the realization, “what should have killed him, saved him.” So he uses his magic bullet to SHOOT A GHOST! Egon and the gang would be baffled!
Finally, there’s the over-arching message of, “guns are bad.” They deliver it in such a heavy-handed way that you half-expect G.I. Joe to deliver a PSA at the end of the film. All of this is, to me, undermined by the fact that a gun ends up saving the day. This is a point that I am still mulling over, as there is a possibility that I’ve missed something. So please, see the movie and make your own informed decision. But if you’re asking, which you probably are if you’re still reading, I give Winchester six magic bullets out of ten.