Winchester Review – Helen Mirren Shines as Elusive Heiress Haunted by Sorrow - Dread Central
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Winchester Review – Helen Mirren Shines as Elusive Heiress Haunted by Sorrow

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Starring Helen Mirren, Sarah Snook, Jason Clarke

Written and Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig


Regular readers of Dread Central may know that in the lead up to the release of Winchester, I was given an unprecedented opportunity to explore the actual setting of this supernatural, historical horror movie. In advance of my paranormal investigation, I did some research on the true story of Sarah Winchester and her sprawling mansion in San Jose, CA. As such, I feel I am both uniquely qualified and simultaneously unfit to give this film a truly unbiased review.

Related Article: Winchester: Before the Movie, See Dread Central’s Paranormal Investigation of the Actual Winchester Mansion

Inevitably, I balanced two aspects of the film: Its adherence to the actual events the film is based on and its success as a straight-up horror movie. And since those seeing Winchester will no doubt be a mix of people familiar with the historical folklore and those who have never heard of the elusive heiress before the film, it will likely resonate differently with different groups.

Don’t worry; I’m not planning on turning this review into a list of historical inaccuracies. Sure, the film is stuffed with them, but historians actually know precious little about Sarah Winchester’s day-to-day life at the mansion. That’s one of her intriguing paradoxes: She valued privacy and isolation above all else; yet, she built a mansion that made her the center of attention for her entire community. The famous picture of Sarah Winchester in a horse-drawn carriage is the only known photograph of the woman who became a living oddity and a continuing source of curiosity.

So, we can’t fault the Spierig brothers for relying heavily on speculation when it comes to the daily life of Sarah Winchester. While there were many who probably considered the heiress a kook, the film is actually glowing in its portrayal of the tortured widow. That’s an understatement, now that I think about it! Mirren’s Winchester is practically a superhero, a paranormal heavyweight on par with Elise Rainier (played by Lin Shaye) in the Insidious franchise. Whether you dig this far-out portrayal or find it too over-the-top probably depends on your expectation going into the film.

Jason Clarke plays Dr. Eric Price, a fitting name for a character admittedly motivated by money. He’s a washed up, drug-addled, prostitute-patronizing psychologist hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to assess Sarah’s sanity (specifically as it pertains to the heiress’ ability to maintain a controlling interest in the profitable outfit). He’s both totally unqualified and uniquely suited to the task, which we come to understand as the character’s backstory is slowly revealed.

The producers of Winchester could have gone a couple of different ways when deciding how to tell this story. It could have been a psychological story, one that left uncertain whether Sarah Winchester was literally haunted by ghosts or figuratively haunted by sorrow, guilt, and regret. On the other hand, it could be a straight-up haunted house story with the “Based on a True Story” tagline slapped on for good measure. Similarly, producers had a variety of options regarding how to best portray Sarah Winchester in film; she could have been a nut-job or a sage.

The Spierigs deliver a film that goes for screams over subtext, sporting no fewer than 12 jump scares. The PG-13 rating, however, is a bit of a barrier, as it prevents the presentation of truly ghastly apparitions. The result is a damn fine haunted house story on par with The Haunting in Connecticut; Winchester is most likely to disappoint those with an existing fascination with Sarah Winchester and her mysterious house.

A point the film tries to make but fails to hammer home is that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if visitors to the Winchester Mansion believe in ghosts; all that matters is Sarah’s belief, which was both unshakable and infectious. Having been to the Winchester Mansion recently, I can attest to the location’s ability to elicit powerful, haunting sensations. You can be the biggest skeptic on the planet, but the house is Sarah Winchester’s domain, a manifestation of her tortured psyche. And since the heiress was unable to pacify the spirits that became her obsession, then the house is, objectively, haunted.

I’m a huge fan of supernatural horror, and Winchester succeeds at creating what may be the first California Gothic in genre history. There’s plenty of cool stuff to look at, and Mirren is amazing—exactly as we’d expect her to be. It’s a big improvement over the Spierig brothers’ last effort, 2017’s Jigsaw, but I feel like we’re still waiting for the filmmaking duo to truly knock one out of the park.

  • Winchester
3.0

Summary

Winchester is a decent haunted house horror movie on par with The Haunting in Connecticut. Its PG-13 rating and boatload of jump scares probably mean the film will resonate more with younger genre fans. While it’s not the accurate portrayal history buffs may have hoped for, Helen Mirren shines, completely upending established Woman in Black motifs.

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