Winchester: Solid horror, eerier source material

Photo credit CBS Films via Levenson Group PR/Winchester
Photo credit CBS Films via Levenson Group PR/Winchester /

Winchester is essentially a haunted house horror film that exploits every dark corner and squeaky floorboard to the fullest extent. There is far more mystery, however, behind the true stories within the walls of the house.

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It’s the early 1900s, San Jose, and the Winchester house is under construction. Perpetually. Everything is slow, deliberate, dark. Long shadows from dimly lit lanterns. A little boy sleep walking and standing still in corners as if possessed. He points and says, “He’s coming for us,” just as the floor boards creak.

There used to be a Hardees’ ad (Carl’s Jr. for the West coast) about their chili cheese burger. The gist was, the burger was so loaded with chili and cheese that you had no choice but to watch some slop onto your French fries. Don’t want chili cheese fries? Too bad. Like it or not, the beginnings of Winchester jolts viewers into a classic haunted house horror movie. The intro insists upon the Winchester house being haunted. There is no deception to it; they just plan the formula you know better.

Was Sarah Winchester insane?

If you’ve been to the actual Winchester house, you already know the place is certifiable. Doors that go to nowhere, secret rooms, short doors that only the Lollipop Guild can use. The house is more crazy than spooky. As legend has it, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) inherited more than $20 million after her husband’s death, and spent the rest of her life overseeing construction on the Winchester house in San Jose.

Photo Credit: Winchester/CBS Studios Image Acquired from
Photo Credit: Winchester/CBS Studios Image Acquired from /

As 50% stakeholder in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Sarah had all the money she’d ever need. She could have spent her money in any manner. However, she felt she must continuously construct rooms in her home to house the spirits who fell at the hands of the Winchester rifles. Understandably, the Winchester board of trustees saw this as failing mental state, and wished to seize total control. Enter Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke), tasked with evaluating the mental clarity and stability of this fascinating woman.

The Winchester, with it’s 30+ years of expansion, 7 stories, and nearly 100 rooms, is definitely spooky. There entire house is essentially a maze, and that, in and of itself, is haunting. Even if the house isn’t haunted. Consequently, Dr. Price comes in loaded for bear, wishing to dispel the tall tales built around the life of a grieving widow.

Is the house haunted?

Price begins his investigation into the house with a little laudanum before dinner (ironic because he’s analyzing another person’s mental state), and every subsequent vision of spirits is easily dismissed. Even without his drugs he is convinced it’s withdrawal. Could the visions he has be caused by drugs? I couldn’t say for sure, but it’s easily more believable than other hallucinations like Pleasure Town or pseudo-science in high school.

Then again, the place could actually be haunted by the souls of the people on the receiving end of a Winchester. Another alternative is sleep deprivation. Indeed, the never-ending construction and bells ringing all hours of the night at the house would be insufferable. Creepy noises at night, you say? Probably just the footfalls of the night crew carpenters. You have visions? Probably because you haven’t had 8-hours of sleep since the late 1800s. How in the world could anyone sleep there?

Nevertheless, Price begins to believe.

The reveal is slow and deliberate.

The Spierig brothers directed Winchester, and they’re normally very capable swimming in the horror genre waters. Predestination and Daybreakers were both pretty innovative and compelling. As the legend goes, spirits want the rooms built. Sarah obliges. There is a bit more, but it’s really derivative.

The one original twist is perhaps too little too late. The Spierig brothers keep their powder dry until the very last moment, and everything mostly makes sense in the end. Mostly. But it takes so long, some viewers may be as lost as guests in the house.

There are some other negatives.

Read any reviews of Winchester and the unoriginal nature will likely be mentioned. After all, it’s a haunted house movie with mostly jump scares. Scratch that, all jump scares. The timing of the scares is impeccable, however, even if predictable. These type of scenes have been done better.

Additionally, the politically charged nature of the film dulls some of the shine. Potshots are taken at the necessity of the Winchester rifles, and their ultimate purpose, but the message misses the target. The gunpowder smells too Hollywood. Too political.

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Ultimately Winchester is a bit half-cocked if traditional jump scares and minimal originality turns you off. If you love horror films, however, bite the bullet and watch it. Otherwise, it feels like a solid January movie that somehow slipped into February.

Winchester is now in theaters.