The Winchester Mansion has influenced quite a few fictional haunted houses – including Hill House, Hell House and Rose Red. The widow of the founder of the Winchester Repeating Rifle Company – whose chief product was one of several contestants for the title ‘the gun that won the West’ and star of Anthony Mann’s Winchester .73 – bought a relatively modest home and spent her declining years having rooms added to it, allegedly wracked with guilt over the numbers of folks killed with the guns that paid for the work. An Alan Moore-scripted issue of Swamp Thing made use of the story, and given the run of ‘inspired by true events’ horror films from the Amityvilles to the Conjurings it’s almost a surprise that it’s taken so long for a film to be constructed around the house … though this extends its high concept to the casting of Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester, bringing a touch of steel-eyed class to a pretty familiar spook story littered with (effective) jump scares and tied together with a lot of fictionalising and borrowing.
Directors Michael and Peter Spierig – who co-wrote with Tom Vaughan – recently revived the Saw franchise with Jigsaw, and seem to have taken a leaf out of their Saw predecessor Darren Lynn Bousman’s book in that their rationale for all the building work is similar to that of Bousman’s Abattoir. All the extra rooms are replicas of the sites of killings involving the Winchester rifle and are designed to trap angry ghosts (who can’t get through a door which is shut by thirteen nails) who get to ponder a while before departing into the light or somesuch. It’s a decent enough premise, but … surely most of the Winchester rifle’s deadly work was done out of doors during the Indian Wars or in wide open spaces like the OK Corral? We get a selection of spooks, led by aggrieved bereaved Confederate Ben Block (Eamon Farren) who blamed the company for the deaths of his brothers – and turned one of their guns on the Winchester office staff before killing himself with it, manifesting as a bagheaded ghost or possessing Sarah’s redheaded nephew. Again, it’s a workable premise but doesn’t gibe with history every fule kno: Block looks to be in his early twenties and his massacre-suicide is dated 1885, twenty years after the Civil War — so where does his uniform come from and how does he even remember his brothers? Also in the ghost crew is a shackled slave – how many of those were killed by Winchesters? There’s one visible Native American, when a whole tribe should show up – and it seems a missed opportunity not to bring in any famous names of the Old West who got plugged by rifle fire.
The set-up is that in 1906, the company want Sarah declared insane so they can dissuade her from turning the business over to the manufacture of rollerskates – a slightly less lethal product – and go along with her suggestion that psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) be hired to make a personal inspection of the house and form an opinion about her sanity. Price – and Clarke sports a look pleasingly like mid-60s Vincent Price – turns out to have his own ghosts, and soon tumbles that Sarah has chosen him because he was once dead for three minutes after his mad wife (Laura Brent) shot him with a Winchester before killing herself – Sarah has even commissioned a replica of his conservatory, where the tragedy took place. It’s a nice change to visit a haunted house that’s cramped and crowded – the architectural eccentricities are nicely explored, and the place is swarming with workmen at all hours of the day and night, hammering and sawing and planing and raising such a racket that it’s easy not to notice the ghosts. But eventually, it boils down to a few people confronting an angry ghost who does the Ghostbusters trick of freeing the rest of the spooky gang in the finale, though they don’t do much more than loom. Sarah Snook, outstanding in the Spierig Brothers’ Predestination, is good as Sarah’s neice, but the drama is mostly in the back-and-forth between Mirren’s sometimes-veiled old lady and Clarke’s laudanum-tippling shrink.
Early on, the film toys with the audience by setting up, withholding, faffing about and then delivering one of the most elementary scares in the playbook – the rotted face glimpsed in the mirror. Most of its jumps are similar gags, but the film is too busy, crowded and plot-heavy to work up enough of an atmosphere of dread – even the average Insidious or Paranormal Activity entry has a higher chill factor. Nice to see lanky Bruce Spence, an Ozsploitation legend, as a Lurch-like butler. And it features one of my favourite credits in recent years – ‘Victorian Child Employment Officer’.