Helen Mirren as Mrs. Winchester is the only draw for the new film ‘Winchester,’ loosely based on the eccentric heiress whose San Jose, California mansion is now a tourist attraction.
Michael and Peter Spierig’s Winchester is not a biopic as much as it is a haunted house movie. It is inspired by the real female heiress, Sarah Winchester (1839-1922), but the film does not unfold from that character’s point-of-view. Events are seen from a male doctor’s perspective. He gets a backstory, while all we know of Mrs. Winchester, portrayed by Helen Mirren, is that she is a widow and mourns for her dead child. In fact, Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who is addicted to laudanum, has more dialogue and more screen time than the title character. As the film suggests, Mrs. Winchester’s fortune, which she inherited upon her husband’s death in 1881, is from the ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
For fans of haunted house movies, it has been nearly two decades since the last good film in this horror sub-genre, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) — and Winchester is neither as eery or as well-written. That film starred Nicole Kidman and was shot from her character’s point-of-view. Winchester begins with a silly cameo of the Australian filmmakers; it then moves to the main narrative that opens at the home of Dr. Price who is entertaining three half-naked prostitutes. This gratuitous scene is apparently an attempt to seize the attention of the male audience. As the ladies leave, a board member from the rifle company arrives; he offers the doctor a job that would allow him to pay off his debts, and support his opium habit. All Price has to do is “assess” Mrs. Winchester and declare her insane.
The story then moves to Mrs. Winchester’s 160-room mansion, but not inside the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California that Sarah Winchester built. (Some on-location filming took place there, but interiors were shot in Australia.) The tourist attraction is celebrated for its “stairs to nowhere,” attributed to Mrs. Winchester’s madness, somewhat akin to Orson Welles’ fictional character in Citizen Kane. He built Xanadu to house his art collection, and Mrs. Winchester built hers to house her ghosts. This delightful idea is not fully explained in Winchester, but the apocalyptic ending portends a television series.
In a 2010 interview, Sarah Winchester’s biographer, Mary Jo Ignoffo, explains the strange stairwells by pointing to the damage that the mansion sustained in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Rather than rebuilding, the heiress sealed off areas of her home. Ignoffo’s account of Winchester’s life, Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune (2012), is derived from Winchester’s papers that included correspondence in which she discourages visits from her extended family, using the many years of construction as her reason for not offering invitations.
In Winchester, Mrs. Winchester speaks to the ghosts, although Ignoffo writes that these stories grew out of her reclusiveness and her rebuff of pesky neighbors who then spread rumors about her. In the film, the rooms are provided to the spirits of angry gunshot victims, as Mrs. Winchester patiently explains to Dr. Price, shortly after his arrival. She apologizes to them on behalf of the company so that they might find peace. Mrs. Winchester soon discovers that Dr. Price was once dead for three minutes, the result of a gunshot wound; when he starts seeing the ghosts, too, the movie takes a frightening turn. Price is permitted to live at the mansion, although Mrs. Winchester seizes his laudanum because it is a threat to her family. Her more permanent guests are a staunchly loyal niece, recently widowed (Sarah Snook), and her young son.
The Spierig brothers’ screenplay does not waste any time on characterization; all the primary cast members are widows or widowers. Their direction of the actors is such that the stately female characters, Mrs. Winchester and her unsmiling niece, are out of a Hitchcock movie, while Clarke appears to be modeled on a guest at House on Haunted Hill. The camera, which is overhead, the better to disorient the viewer, or sneaking around a corner, is often in the wrong place, sometimes several times in a row — for instance, in a mirror sequence with Dr. Price, the same shot is repeated three times with the camera at an odd angle to the back of the actor’s head. Twice would have sufficed. No “scary movie” cliché is left unexplored in Winchester, but to be fair the production design is quite good, especially in the gas-lit interiors of the mansion.
As for the real-life Mrs. Winchester, Ignoffo quoted the son of the heiress’ lawyer who said that she “was as sane and clear-headed a woman as I have ever known, and she had a better grasp of business and financial affairs than most men. The commonly believed supposition that she had hallucinations is all bunk.” The Spierig brothers are apparently not interested in real women, only in mining the commercial possibilities of both a popular tourist destination and the mad heiress stereotype. In the meantime, Sarah Winchester’s life is awaiting better storytellers who might explore why a New Haven, Connecticut heiress and philanthropist, the descendent of a family who arrived there in 1644, decided at 47 years of age to move to San Jose, California with her sister and her niece.