Don't Watch This: Winchester (2018)
By Cassandra Litten
Dir. The Spierig Brothers
Written by The Spierig Brothers, Michael Vaughan
The official poster for Winchester is simple: Helen Mirren, as Sarah Winchester, stares at the viewer, her visage somewhat obscured by the delicate black veil over her face. Her mouth is a tight line, her eyes almost empty in their darkness. But there is something there, gleaming ever-so-slightly. Something haunting.
It’s uncomplicated, but it’s good.
But a good poster design cannot carry an entire film by itself, and the promise of a frightening ghost story stays forever trapped in Sarah Winchester’s eyes.
Sarah Lockwood (Pardee) Winchester was a real person and the movie cannot be discussed without a look at the true story that inspired it.
Sarah was beautiful and smart, dubbed “The Belle of New Haven” (Connecticut, her hometown). Her husband, William Wirt Winchester, was the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, manufacturers of the Winchester Rifle. Their only child, Annie, died in 1866, when she was only 40 days old, and when William died of tuberculosis in 1881, Sarah fell into a despair from which she never recovered. The death of her husband left her an inheritance of $20 million (over $500 million today), in addition to about fifty percent of the Winchester Rifle stock, which earned her roughly $1,000 a day (nearly $26,000 today) for the rest of her life. Not to be crass, but that’s a fuckload of money. And that fuckload made her the wealthiest woman in the world.
In 1884, she moved to California and started construction on the house.
Now known as "The Winchester Mystery House", the Queen Anne-style mansion is four stories high (was at one time seven stories prior to a 1906 earthquake) and legend has it that construction crews worked on it constantly (twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year) until her death in 1922. Sarah’s biographer disputes this, claiming that Sarah frequently dismissed the crews, sometimes for months at a time, so she might enjoy some rest. It is true, however, that Sarah was the only designer, and she frequently made bizarre and contradictory design choices (ie. stairs that encircle themselves, skylights in the floor, doors that open to walls). The precise inspiration behind the construction is muddled in tabloid gossip, but the popular story is that Sarah, before moving out west, was told by a medium that the spirits of those killed by the Winchester Rifle were haunting her and she would die if she did not appease them, so she built the house as they instructed her. Other stories claim that the medium advised her that the only way she would survive these vengeful spirits was to build in such a way that would keep them lost. Whatever happened, the house become a sprawling, nonsensical labyrinth with 40 bedrooms, 2 ballrooms (one of which is unfinished), 10,000 panes of glass, 47 fireplaces and stairways, 2,000 doors, 160 rooms, 17 chimneys, 13 bathrooms, and 6 kitchens. That they know about. To this day, new rooms and features are still being uncovered.
The Spierig Brothers took this story and ran, but they went in the wrong direction. Instead of centering the story around Sarah herself, the main character is a fictional doctor, Eric Price, played by Jason Clarke. Dr. Price is a psychologist, hired by the Winchester Company to stay at the house and assess the state of her mental health. Price is reliant on drugs to function following the death of his wife and says things like “I do not believe in anything I cannot see or study.” Sarah, fully aware why Dr. Price is there, is not interested in faking anything for the sake of appearing sane. Yes, there are ghosts in the house. Yes, she feels genuinely afraid of them. Yes, she wants to help them.
But perhaps the most frustrating thing is the mistreatment of the house and its mistress. The Winchester Mansion, as it exists in real life, has the feeling of being haunted simply because of how unsettling and confusing the layout is. Yet, in the film, it was just kind of there. And Sarah Winchester, an immensely interesting person, becomes part of the background, too, fodder for the tragic story of Dr. Eric Price.
Helen Mirren does her best with what she’s given, as does the rest of the cast, but even good performances can’t uplift such a bland, meandering film.