I’m “biast” (con): …but this isn’t really about a woman
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
This is definitely true: Sarah Winchester was heir to a fortune that made her one of the richest women in the world in the late 19th century, and a stakeholder in her deceased husband’s family business, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. In 1886, five years after her husband’s death, she moved to San Jose, California, outside San Francisco, and began building a mad warren of a mansion that would eventually reach seven stories and contain hundreds of rooms. The place — it’s still standing and is now a tourist attraction — remains such an architectural nightmare that a map is needed to navigate it, and features many oddities such as stairways that go nowhere.
These things may not be true, but long ago sprang up as legend surrounding the woman and the house, and are not ideas that this Winchester movie invented: Sarah Winchester believed that she was cursed, haunted by the tortured souls of those who were killed by Winchester rifles, and subjected her mansion to 24/7 nonstop construction until her death in 1922 in order to somehow appease those spirits, or perhaps to confuse them.
So that’s what Australian filmmaker brothers Michael and Peter Spierig had to work with for this new horror movie of theirs. Did they craft a sublime psychological thriller full of subtleties and ambiguities about guilt and grief? In a better universe, maybe, but not this one. Did they wrest a pulpy gothic reckoning with America’s gun culture out of a terrifying tale of the damage guns do? This wouldn’t have been at all surprising: Australia had a gun culture similar to America’s… until 1996, when a terrible mass shooting spurred an almost-literally overnight transition to very tight gun control. (That country has not had another mass shooting since.) The filmmakers, twins, were 20 years old at the time, and this would surely have had an enormous impact on them, a dramatic and lightning-fast breakdown and restructuring of the Australian national psyche. Hell, they’ve even invented, as a key plot point in Winchester, a completely ahistorical 1886 lone-wolf mass shooting (such things did not start to happen until the mid 20th century) fueled by a desire for revenge (as the 1996 Australian mass shooting was in part). But no: there is not even the tiniest hint that guns are instruments of horror in this horror movie about guns: in fact, a gun is what ends up resolving the plot’s big problem.
We really are living in the darkest timeline. Or the Mirror Universe.
How can I even be surprised, then, that two male filmmakers looked at a fascinating woman from history and thought, “What our movie about her needs is a male protagonist.” Because Winchester is not Sarah Winchester’s journey: it is the journey of the totally invented Dr. Eric Price, some sort of head shrink and therapist hired by the Winchester company in the hopes that he will sign off on Mrs. Winchester’s insanity so they can remove her from the board. He goes to the house for a stay in April 1906 (an ominous date if you know your San Francisco history), and while he arrives troubled and angsty and a drunk and a laudanum addict and — very important! — a skeptic about ghosts, he will leave a changed man. Because there’s nothing at all ambiguous here: Mrs. Winchester isn’t just a batty old lady. The spirits are real, and they are really angry, and they really do want her building a crazy-ass house for them. But never mind about her! How will what transpires impact Price?
With ambiguity out the window (a window that, in the Winchester house, would look out into another room, or something similarly wacky), we at least get scary, right? Nope. Winchester is unwilling to take any tack other than straight-up haunted-house story, and it can’t even do that well. The few tedious jump scares are telegraphed a mile out. A new spirit that is the meanest, nastiest, most powerful one to roam the house to date has arrived, according to Winchester (dealing with this complication is the teeny bit of a journey that she has to take), but it’s not a very interesting spirit, just a standard cinematic boogeyman. The Spierigs are unable to create a sense of the weird geography of the house: they may show us a stairway leading nowhere, but they don’t make us feel claustrophobic or trapped, and we should. We get supporting characters who react inconsistently to the oddness of Winchester and the house: one of Winchester’s lackeys (a lawyer? a butler? I have no idea) scoffs to Price at the notion of ghosts but then gets very serious and creepy about a bell at the house that tolls at midnight every night, like midnight has special significance… so does he believe in spirits and the witching hour, or not? (Some of the supporting Australian cast — the film was shot mostly Down Under — are sporting dodgy faux American accents, which is really distracting, and in one case definitely detracts from his intended ookiness.)
And there are some thematic problems, too. The movie seems to suggest that that superstrong new poltergeist is somehow responsible for the massive 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which hits during the film’s climax. There seems to be little other reason to have chosen this particular temporal setting for the story, and yet there’s also no reason to believe that these spirits have anything like this much power. Ghosts of slaves and Native Americans — people who’d have excellent cause to hate Winchester rifles! — appear in the background, with no voices and no impact on the story; they are historic atrocities reduced to mere set dressing. Mental illness is minimized, tossed back into a medieval interpretation about being hounded by spirits. Grief and guilt are likewise recast as literal hauntings, not complicated human responses to trauma and tragedy but veils that are lifted with the departure of a ghost.
The main cast here deserves so much better, and the fact that their presence can barely elevate this junk is an indication of just how uninspired the whole endeavor is. It’s not the fault of Helen Mirren (The Fate of the Furious, Collateral Beauty), as Winchester, that the script doesn’t have a lot of interest in her character beyond having her wander around as a morbid specter to lend some atmosphere. It’s not the fault of Jason Clarke (Everest, Terminator Genisys), as Price, that the script withholds so much from us about his character in the name of being twisty that he comes across as exactly opposite the sort of man he turns out to be. And it’s certainly not the fault of Sarah Snook (Oddball and the Penguins, The Dressmaker), the most incredible Australian actor you have not heard of yet, as Winchester’s niece, that she has nothing to do but play the fretful mother — her young son is being harassed by the nasty spirit — and must deliver the most embarrassingly on-the-nose little speech about motherhood that I think I’ve ever seen onscreen. (And since film has little but clichés to offer about motherhood in general, that bar was already extremely low. Winchester lowers it.)
The Spierigs started their filmmaking career with a good little zombie cheapie in 2003 called Undead; later they made the terrific and — key point — original 2010 vampire flick Daybreakers. Now they’re doing Jigsaw and this tired mess. This is what almost always happens when makers of interesting little films get sucked into Hollywood. I’m sick of it. Why does Hollywood snatch up those filmmakers if they’re not going to let them be themselves?