As the wealthy widow of a dead weapons manufacturer in Winchester, Helen Mirren strides through darkened hallways in a long black veil and looks daggers at her houseguests. The character of Sarah Winchester, who lost her only daughter to illness at one-month-old, and subsequently devoted endless amounts of time and money to building a sprawling mansion on the outskirts of San Jose at the turn of the 20th century, is a tragic figure. Mirren, who’s made a point of appearing in action movies like the RED franchise and The Fate of the Furious when she’s not on Dame duty, is not. She’s having fun, and her spirited acting gives the film a lift. It’s almost enough to take things as boldy over the top as its directors—the identical twins Peter and Michael Spierig, last seen dominating the Halloween box office with Jigsaw—are trying to go.
Admittedly, the Spierigs are aiming high, just like they did in their 2014 breakthrough Predestination, a twisty thriller starring Ethan Hawke as a time-travelling agent trying to prevent a deadly bombing. That film was clever and surprising, and amidst its Philip K. Dick–ish flourishes, it dealt surprisingly (and empathetically) with conflicted sexual identity. There’s even thicker progressive subtext in Winchester, which was left for dead with an early February/Super Bowl weekend release date. It offers blunt political commentary cloaked in Gothic garb. In look and tone, Winchester is a fairly typical haunted-house movie—shades of everything from The Innocents to The Others—but its ghosts are a stand-in for something larger. Sarah’s isolation and misery is a form of living death, and it stems from her guilt over the family business. She knows why she feels chills and hears voices: she’s haunted by the legacy of American gun violence.
There is a historical basis for this characterization. The real Sarah Winchester was deeply ambivalent about the source of her fortune, and has endured, long after her death, as a figure of pathos and sadness (the Winchester Mystery House remains a profitable tourist destination as well). Mirren approaches her performance with equal measures of haughtiness and humour. Confronted by Jason Clarke’s dubious psychiatrist—who’s been hired by her board of directors to cast aspersions on her mental health and undermine her stake in the company—she unravels his slick psychobabble with deadpan finesse. But as the film goes along, the story demands that Sarah’s imperiousness disappear, replaced by guilt, terror, and remorse over what she calls her family’s “curse.” Mirren is of course equal to the task, leaning into the senior-scream-queen shtick with gusto.
The early passages of Winchester are luxuriously familiar: there’s something enjoyably old-school about seeing a carriage pull up in front of a mansion.
There’s a fine line between camp and convention, and the Spierigs mostly stay on the right side, guided by a respect for genre and craftsmanship. They have a healthy sense of comedy, too, timing the ghostly hallucinations experienced by Clarke’s Dr. Eric Price (who has his own sad-sack backstory involving a dead partner) to his intake of laudanum. It’s a clever way to play with the old standby that characters in movies like this suspect their minds are playing tricks on them.
Cliches abound in Winchester, but some of them are still pretty potent. When Sarah’s young nephew Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) is suddenly possessed by an evil spirit, the twist is conventional, but the staging is nightmarish in a non-supernatural way. The spectacle of a small child methodically stalking a family member with a rifle carries a charge that transcends the narrative and connects to a grim, absurd social reality.
This link between hackneyed, horror-movie spookiness and the truly disturbing confluence between industry, capitalism, and violence runs through Winchester, and gives it a certain power. At one point, Price, whose ability to see dead people becomes less tied to his drug use as the film goes on, finds himself in a withered garden surrounded by silent, accusatory figures representing African-American and First Nations casualties of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company’s output. It’s a grandstanding move, and arguably exploitative in its own way. The Spierigs can’t conceive of these characters beyond the iconography of victimhood.
Even if this tableaux doesn’t totally work, it’s bold. And so is the decision to identify the most malevolent of the phantoms—the one bent on destroying Sarah and her family once and for all—as a late Confederate soldier, simultaneously empathizing with his grievance while alluding (however indirectly) to the retrograde rage on display last summer in Charlottesville. This sense of something dangerous bursting forth is present throughout Winchester, which is filled with images of barricaded doors and hidden passageways that make safety and security seem impossible.
What Winchester lacks in Babadook-style scariness, it makes up for in an unsettling open-endedness, right down to a final shot which suggests that a society founded on the right to bear arms won’t ever find rest or peace.