"Winchester" is Worthwhile Visit...For Fans

I lived in San Jose, California for five years and when I drove to the grocery store I would see the Winchester Mystery House. This infamous house with its history of ghosts and madness stood just a few blocks from my house! I've been on the tours many times, walking the weird corridors, dark rooms, and even the cold basement – and love taking visitors there, especially for the candlelit tours in complete darkness. Naturally when I heard there was a movie starring Helen Mirren, I was positively giddy.

Thankfully, WINCHESTER does not completely disappoint fans. It melds the house's history (as told by the docent's carefully crafted scripts) with an original story that conjures up a frightful villain. The first act gets straight to the point with ghosts but panders to the audience with many startle scares. Once the movie settles into the second act, it shifts gears and slowly builds the greater mysteries. Then the third act amps up the action but stumbles a bit instead of hitting us with both barrels. At the center is a confused message that seems to contradict itself – the remedy for violence is... more violence!

At least the movie documents the eccentric charm, perplexing history, and enduring lore of the fabled house. More importantly, it introduces the world to the reclusive and endlessly fascinating Sarah Winchester*. As Sarah, Helen Mirren commands every second of screen time and brings out Sarah's strength, sharp mind, and resilience. Jason Clarke does a marvelous job as the drug-addled doctor sent to assess Sarah's mental health. Both actors bestow needed gravitas to the film and show how good actors can elevate any material. I could have easily watched Helen talk about windows treatments and her choice of doorknobs for another half-hour.

At the core is the infamous house with its odd architecture and illogical luxury. With a few external shots of the actual house, the budget clearly ended up on the screen with beautifully realized sets complete with intricate recreations of the woodwork, jeweled lighting, and period details. The atmosphere is dark and oppressive, and the lighting is theatrical and rich with just a few eerie wisps of light piercing long dark corridors. As a haunted house, the posturing is classic, ornate, and terrifying. The movie happens to capture one of the strangest mysteries about the real house itself: once inside its walls, you don't want to leave.

Truth be told, I would have preferred a more sophisticated take on the Winchester House but realize there's an intended audience here. Ultimately this movie is destined to be a souvenir for the Winchester Mystery House gift shop so it aims for an unoffensive middle ground. Unfortunately, the Victorian-like restraint shows and keeps it from being a truly satisfying terror. I also wonder if it will resonate with viewers who don't have an emotional attachment to the house like I do. Perhaps it will pique the interest of movie goers to visit the house. Now there's a strategy!

*NOTE: I recommend the book "Captive of the Labyrinth" by Mary Jo Ignoffo for an exhaustive look at the looooong history of Sarah Winchester, the house, and the lore. Spoiler alert: There's a lot of buzzkill in the book. 

by Daniel Danger