October 10, 2019

Winchester (2018)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Spierig Brothers
Stars: Jason Clarke, Helen Mirren, Sarah Snook

What it's about. Set in 1906, because that is the year of the Great San Francisco Earthquake. But that won't come until later in the story.

Dr. Price (Jason Clarke) is a dissipated middle-age man fond of alcohol and morphine. He is approached by a lawyer representing the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, who offer him a substantial sum of money in return for a task. Price is to journey to San Jose, California, where the eccentric and elderly widow Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) lives in a ginormous mystery house under around-the-clock construction.

Price is expected to write a report that concludes that Sarah is incapable of business affairs. Sarah owns a majority of Winchester company stock, and the officers of the company seek to control her shares. Sarah lives in the sprawling mansion with her niece Marion (Sarah Snook), and Marion's unassuming preteenaged son Henry (Finn Sciciuna-O'Prey). Also there is construction foreman Hansen (Angus Sampson), dour butler Augustine (Bruce Spence), and a creepy footman (Jeffrey W. Jenkins).

Dr. Price arrives. He interviews Sarah, and finds her intelligent and cogent. Price lingers at the mansion, under the guise of his report. Although restricted to his room, Price nonetheless regularly explores the cumbersome mansion. He eventually realizes that the house is haunted by spirits, and that Henry is possessed at night by a malicious spirit.

During his interviews with Sarah, Price learns that the house's many rooms are built to accommodate disturbed ghosts, all of them victims of Winchester rifles. Sarah communicates with the ghosts at night, and is usually able to calm them, with the exception of Benjamin Block (Eamon Farren), a deceased Confederate soldier who seeks to kill the Winchester family.

Price was selected by Sarah because of his troubled past. Price survived a shot to the chest accidentally delivered by his wife Ruby (Laura Brent), who then committed suicide. Indeed, Price's brush with death enables him to see the many ghosts that haunt the property.

How others will see it. Winchester was a fairly low budget Australian production. It was profitable, earning multiples of its cost. Upon release, it was panned by critics as dull and slow-moving. Although ignored by most film festivals, the Razzies noticed it, and nominated it for Worst Picture, Worst Actress (Mirren), Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay.

At imdb.com, the movie has a mediocre user rating of 5.4 out of 10. This ranges from 4.4 from males under 18, to 6.0 among women over 45. Consistently, older and female audiences dislike the movie less.

It is a surprise, then, that the "most helpful" user reviews are mostly positive. The overall negative view of the film comes from its blend of mystery, drama, and horror. The audience wants more of the latter, and less of the former.

How I felt about it. Many aspects of the movie are fictional. Dr. Price is a cinematic invention, and so is Henry. There is no evidence that the Winchester house was ever haunted, or even that Sarah believed in ghosts. Instead, she was apparently motivated by an interest in architecture and numerology. She also had the wealth to spend on whatever struck her fancy, reminiscent of William Randolph Hearst whose story was famously fictionalized in Citizen Kane.

But Sarah Winchester was a real person, and she did inherit controlling ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. She did become reclusive. She did build this sprawling, zany mansion in San Jose, which stands today and became a tourist attraction shortly after her death. The ghost stories associated with the mansion began with the tour guides, who were encouraged by owners to promote tours via entertaining tales.

So, the film takes a historical premise, then just makes stuff up. This has been done before, of course, e.g. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And, commercially speaking, it is for the better, since folks might pay money to see Lincoln hunt vampires, or Sarah Winchester battle enraged ghosts.

Once one accepts that Winchester is historical fiction (as if it could be anything else), there remains the issue with genre. That is, if it is a horror movie, why wait an hour into the film before most of the scary stuff happens. That is too long for aficionados of the Saw franchise, accustomed to a generous amount of gore.

But Winchester doesn't have to be horror, even if it was cynically marketed that way. It doesn't even have to please its audience. Actually, all that one can expected of it is that it is well made. Which it is, even if most who see it don't see it that way.