Generally, anything featuring Dame Helen Mirren will have something to offer, whether it be a crushing Oscar-worthy monologue, or some entertaining shots of the seventy-two-year-old (still in her prime) riding around in the Fast and the Furious cars. Unfortunately, however, not even Mirren’s incredible talent and panache could save the ill-fated thriller, Winchester.
The film is based on the true story of Sarah Winchester (Mirren), the cursed widow of the inventor of the Winchester repeating rifle, a gun that became one of the most manufactured guns in America throughout the 19th century. To be fair, the actual facts behind this story are bizarre and fascinating. After the tragic death of her husband from tuberculosis in 1888, and then the death of her young daughter soon after, Sarah Winchester went to a medium who supposedly informed the grieving widow of a terrible curse on her family. The medium reportedly told Sarah that the only way she could protect herself and her family from being forever haunted by the ghosts killed at the hand of a Winchester rifle was to keep records of the victims and re-create the rooms in which each person had died. Only then would the spirits be at peace, and only then could she be redeemed from her husband’s sins.
If the story’s rights had fallen to a different screenwriter, perhaps the film would have been more interesting. The problem lies not in the true story, but its fictionalised extension, written out of a desperate need for a plot. The imagined part follows an alcoholic and drug-addicted doctor (Jason Clarke) who is invited by the Winchester Arms company to Sarah Winchester’s sprawling house to evaluate her mental health. Within the first ten minutes, random disfigured apparitions with demonic eyes appear in the doctor’s sight. But he is, of course, a man of science first and a drug addict second so, conveniently, he refuses to believe the validity of what he’s seeing. The remainder of the film is a compilation of cliché and pointless scares all leading up to the grand finale – a predictable stand-off between the bad ghost and the doctor who, unsurprisingly, reverses his scepticism about ghosts.
Besides the unquestionably banal scares, the logic of the film doesn’t seem to make too much sense. The motivation behind the antagonising ghost is not strong enough to convince us he would be so evil. Beyond that, the ghost’s level of darkness or wickedness isn’t actually that scary. In the end, Helen Mirren gives a cheap performance conveying illegitimate fear, something that is ultimately echoed and adopted by the audience’s reaction to the scare tactics.
Film reviewed at Cineworld, Edinburgh.