By Liam Lacey
There's one thing you can say for new horror movie Winchester: It finally acknowledges the right of ghosts to bear arms. The old National Rifle Association slogan, "from my cold, dead hands" no longer need be the endpoint for the determined firearms enthusiast.
This peculiar supernatural thriller, set in 1906 in San Francisco, stars Australian actor Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) as a dissolute doctor (hookers, laudanum) hired by the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. His job is to establish the mental incompetence of heiress Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) to get her removed from the company. To do this, the doctor must move into her vast, ramshackle mansion and observe the eccentric heiress close-up.
The plot of Winchester was inspired by the real-life Winchester Mystery Mansion, a famous architectural folly and tourist attraction in San Jose, California. The seven-story, 161-room monstrosity is full of blind stairs, doors that open unto walls and other architectural errors. The Winchester heiress, in a disastrous combination of mania and money, spent 38 years having it built, and rebuilt round the clock.
The notion that Sarah Winchester was cursed by the victims of the firearms that made her wealthy was an established urban legend before directors Michael and Peter Speirig developed it as a script. (If you suspect this is not an entirely American-made, National Rifle Association-endorsed movie, you'd be right; the production is Australian.)
The doctor soon learns that Sarah, who floats around the corridors of her mansion in a black dress and widow's veil, has an agenda. She has picked Dr. Price for the job because she knows (somehow) of his own tragic history. She sees him as a potential ally in her struggle with her ghost intruders who she refers to as "unmendable souls who prey upon the innocent and the pure." (The innocent and the pure: Do these spirits have no limits?)
Sarah's endless construction project turns out to be a vast ghost-prison project, involving rehabilitation and confinement. On the rehabilitation side, she’s rebuilding rooms that people were shot in which will liberate their souls. If they're irredeemably recidivist in their ghostly behaviour, they get sealed in small chambers protected by 13 nails until they learn their lesson.
Also living in the maze-like house are Sarah's nephew, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey) a red-haired urchin with a disconcerting habit of sleepwalking with a sack over his head and a noose around his neck, which concerns his mother (Sarah Snook). The boy appears to be possessed by a Confederate soldier (Eamon Farren), who is seeking vengeance, both for his own death and that of his brothers. (This is somewhat unfair since the Winchester rifle wasn't invented until after the Civil War).
Let's just say the film has a “shoot first and ask questions later” quality. The talented actors get lost in the hardwood maze of the set. Mirren — who has played her share of historical personages in gloomy rooms — at least manages to look appropriately wide-eyed and concerned. But the brawny Clarke looks as though he's been forced to wear someone else's burlap underwear. And, despite volleys of abrupt noises, tolling bells and scabby faces appearing in mirrors, suspense is undetectable.
Still, I liked the scene where a roomful of rifles suddenly raise themselves in the air and point accusingly at the protagonist. With a couple of twists, Winchester could work as some kind of comedy, possibly about the challenge of renovating the former club house of a bunch of dead gun nuts.
Winchester. Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig. Written by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig and Tom Vaughn. Starring Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren. Opens wide February 2.