Ghosts take on gun control in socially aware horror flick ‘Winchester’

Justin Jones

The story of Sarah Winchester is one of America’s most famous ghost stories. The heiress to a company founded on weaponry, she believed she was haunted by the ghosts of all those killed by guns bearing her family name.

It’s a wonder no studio has ever before tackled Winchester’s story, but Helen Mirren finally brings it to life in “Winchester,” which is unfortunately made by The Spierig Brothers, the pair behind last year’s dismal “Jigsaw.” They try their best to break the recent trend of garbage PG-13 horror films that release in February and just barely succeed. Though never as deep as it wants to be, the film consistently delivers fun thrills and a few genuinely good scares.
Jason Clarke leads the film as Eric Price, a doctor invented for the film. Price is called in by executives at Winchester’s company to perform a psychological evaluation on her, primarily so she can be dismissed as clinically insane and lose her majority stake. It’s a slow start, but the Spierig brothers get the ball rolling quickly once Price arrives at the Winchester home.

Mirren portrays Winchester wonderfully, playing her with an air of desperation that makes her easily empathetic. Throughout the film, these ghosts are used as a metaphor for the real-life horrors of gun violence. As a woman who gained a fortune from the sales of weapons but could not escape their consequences, Winchester’s life was uniquely American — for better and worse.

With a brilliant, southern Gothic set design and servants that looks ripped straight out of Disney’s Tower of Terror, the visuals of “Winchester” are effectively unsettling. A long, single-take scene involving Price and a mirror provides the film’s first genuinely scary moment, and from there, “Winchester” keeps the dial turned to 11.

The film plays as something of greatest hits for the horror genre, leaning heavily on creepy children, songs in a minor key and, yes, jump scares. Though they follow a predictable pattern — scary noise, tense music, another scary noise, intense walking down a creepy hall, turn corner and SNEAK ATTACK — the horror moments are great fun, delivering thrills akin to a dumb-but-enjoyable action film.

The great cast and enjoyable scares are not enough to save the script of “Winchester,” a cloying tale that combines predictable tropes with left-field twists. Though admirable in its attempts to condemn gun violence, it fails in its character work. Price’s backstory is essentially ripped from Leonardo DiCaprio’s in “Inception,” as he is haunted by the guilt of his wife’s death. This inner conflict is eventually given a convenient, plot-driven closure, as if one can move past the suicide of a loved one simply by feeling okay with it.

Winchester’s story is even worse, legitimizing the “ghosts” of a woman who certainly needed psychological help. But “Winchester,” a film proud of its progressive tendencies, makes a giant misstep by making her mental illness seem “cool,” as if she really is the only one who can see the truth. It contradicts the film’s earlier, more daring social statements, leaving a muddled message where it could have gone bold.

Horror’s answer to dumb, fun action films like last year’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” “Winchester” is fine at best. It combines good scares and brilliant performances with fairly terrible writing, making for a film just good enough to get you through the winter.