Impressions: Winchester

Winchester was a film released earlier this year set in the Winchester Mansion. For those that don’t know the Winchester Mansion, located in San Jose, California, has a bit of history. Legend has it that Sarah Winchester inherited her husband’s fortune and company after he died and Sarah (who had also lost their only child decades before) believed that she was haunted by the spirits of those shot down by her husband’s guns. The Winchester was arguably the best and most popular gun at the time, so that was a lot of spirits. The house was under construction 24/7, and that is not an exaggeration, she believed that if construction ever stopped the spirits would get her. The house was also filled with twists, turns, doors that lead to nowhere, confusing staircases and hallways, all designed to keep the spirits from getting her. The house and the woman responsible for it became a bit of a legend, even before Sarah’s passing.

So with that background, we have the movie. Dr. Eric Price is hired by people in the Winchester company to evaluate Sarah Winchester, their goal being taking the company from her by proving that she’s finally gone mad. Staying in the house with Sarah is her niece Marion, and Marion’s son Henry. It is worth mentioning from the start that this movie does not attempt to question whether or not actual ghosts were haunting Sarah Winchester. It is presented, from the beginning, that there are. It is a ghost story, not a physiological look at Sarah. I feel that this important going in because if you are expecting more of a question then you will be disappointed, and I almost wonder if that’s why so many people disliked this movie, they thought they were getting something other than a ghost story. It’s a ghost story, plain and simple.

To that end, Sarah’s motivations for building the house are changed from what we assume of her real-life motivations. She is not attempting to confuse the spirits by creating such a madhouse, but instead please them. The spirits come to her, possess her to show her the room they want, and once it’s built she confronts them. She apologizes for their deaths and locks them in their room until they are ready to pass. This is an interesting change in motivation, and I am troubled as to whether or not it was for the best. On the plus side it allowed the character of Sarah not merely to be some sad old woman haunted by her guilt, but rather a strong woman being proactive about the curse she believes is over her family and the ghosts that haunt her. She has a clear goal and acts as her own medium and spiritualist to achieve that. On the other hand, it feels lacking.

Overall what this movie is lacking is fear. There are a few intense moments, but not enough to really sell it. The suspense doesn’t exactly pan out, and the final act is not the climax you are hoping for. There is jump scares that are effective enough, but aside from that, nothing brings up the fear element. Having Sarah Winchester more tormented by the ghosts would have done a disservice to her character but could have lent itself to more of a fear element. It is also an interesting choice to say “We are going to do a ghost story set in the Winchester Mansion” then wholly change the motivations of why the mansion is the way it is. Again I don’t know that it was a bad choice, but I can’t say it was a good one either.

The story also suffers a little. Price is haunted by the demons of failing to help his dead wife, and that is important to the plot. It is also underdeveloped so when it reaches its conclusion it doesn’t have the dramatic emotional effect, it’s going for. This was disappointing to me because both Sarah and Price are good characters, but neither is fleshed out as much as they should have been. The acting is also spot on. It’s not surprising that Helen Mirren delivers on the role of Sarah Winchester, but her supporting cast holds their own as well.

The set piece of the house was also not fully utilized in my opinion. There was effort put into sections of the house, and a good job is done to show that it was continually changing and being worked on. However, the characters themselves (and thus the viewers) are only ever in a few rooms. Again it’s an odd choice to pick the Winchester Mansion of all places then not really go into it. I can understand restraints being put on them, it would be an insane endeavor actually to replicate the whole mansion, but a few extra rooms being set pieces would have been nice. The closest the audience gets to a look at the insanity that is this house is when Price if being walked through parts of it.

All in all, I would have to say that that is my biggest problem with the movie. It was a smart choice to say that the Winchester Mansion and Sarah were great for a ghost story, but they didn’t fully go for it. There was a lot of potential with choosing that mansion and that woman as the focal point for a horror film, so it’s disappointing that the movie didn’t live up to it. However, even with these complaints, I didn’t dislike the movie. It’s light on the fear factor (as mentioned), but it’s not bad. The movie is entertaining from start to finish, and while not a 10 it’s not a 1 either. It’s somewhere in the middle and an alright time. I would have loved to see more done with the mansion and character but I don’t hate the result we have.

There are a few pretty impressive moments, and the choice to make Sarah someone who is taking charge of what’s happening to her is something I can appreciate. It would have been easy to make her a small, fearful woman, and I’m glad they didn’t. From all accounts, even though Sarah was trying to keep ghosts from getting to her, she never just hid or gave up. Giving her character strength was nice. It is also reflected in Marion (but again underdeveloped).

I would say that if you go in knowing what to expect you’ll have an alright time with this one. It’s not going to haunt you, and you might feel like there could have been more, but the experience is not one to hate.

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