aka Winchester: The House That Spirits Built
Directors – The Spierig Brothers, Screenplay – The Spierig Brothers & Tom Vaughan, Producers – Tim McGahan & Brett Tomberlin, Photography – Ben Nott, Music – Peter Spierig, Visual Effects – Cutting Edge (Supervisor – Rangi Sutton), Special Effects Supervisor – Peter Stubbs, Makeup Effects Design – Steve Boyle, Production Design – Matthew Putland. Production Company – CBS Films/Eclipse Pictures/Screen Australia/Screen Queensland/Film Victoria/Blacklab Entertainment/Imagination Design Works
Helen Mirren (Sarah Winchester), Jason Clarke (Dr Eric Price), Sarah Snook (Marion Marriott), Finn Scicluna-O’Prey (Henry Marriott), Angus Sampson (John Hansen), Eamon Farren (Ben Block), Bruce Spence (Augustine), Tyler Coffin (Arthur Gates), Laura Brent (Ruby Price)
1906. San Francisco doctor Eric Price is hired by a lawyer representing the board of rifle manufacturer The Winchester Repeating Arms Company to conduct an assessment of the sanity of Sarah Winchester. With the death of her husband, Sarah became the majority shareholder of the company. Following the death of her only child, Sarah has become a recluse, constructing a large mansion in San Jose where she employs a construction team working 24 hours a day obsessively rebuilding and altering the house. Price travels to the Winchester House and views the strange and often nonsensical architecture. Sarah welcomes the assessment but Price is sceptical of her claims to be able to talk to spirits. She explains how she builds the rooms as replicas of the places where those that were killed by the Winchester Rifle died in an effort to help them gain peace. After encountering the spirits of the dead, Price starts to believe. However, the house is being threatened by one malevolent soul that defies all of Sarah’s efforts to appease it.
The Winchester House is considered one of the most haunted sites in America. Sarah Winchester (1840-1922) was the wife of William Winchester, the sole heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. William died of tuberculosis in 1881, leaving Sarah to inherit his fortune and become the majority shareholder in the company. Around 1886, she purchased a farmhouse near San Jose and began extensively rebuilding it in an ongoing project that continued until her death. The house with its eccentric designs, including staircases, doors and windows that open into nowhere, all constructed according to her own architectural designs, has led to much speculation about her motives for doing so. Folklore claims that she was told by a medium either to build the house because she was cursed by the spirits of those who were killed by the Winchester Rifle and that she would die if she ever stopped building.
On the other hand, question of veracity has been placed on the claims to Winchester House being haunted. In an article at The Daily Beast, Sarah’s great-great-niece Laura Trevalyan points out that none of Sarah’s letters make any mentions of ghosts. Rather she seems someone who merely had an intrigue with architecture and followed her own designs. There is no record that Sarah ever met a medium. Indeed, the folklore about the house began to be spread by John Brown who took over the house after her death and turned it into a tourist destination and that the stories he made up have been spread ever since. You cannot help but also wonder if Sarah were haunted by the ghosts killed by the Winchester Rifle, why did she continue to allow the company to keep producing rifles – they still are around today – and earn an annual income from the board.
Winchester follows a spate of various ghost stories in recent years that make claim to be based on true-life– see the like of An American Haunting (2005), The Amityville Horror (2005), The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), The Possession (2012), The Conjuring (2013) and sequels, The Quiet Ones (2014) – and is a speculative venture that sets out to explain what drove Sarah Winchester in building the house. The Asylum had even made the earlier The Haunting of Winchester House (2009), although the connection to the house was scanty.
Winchester comes from Australia’s Spierig Brothers who first appeared with the strange homemade zombie/alien abduction film Undead (2003) and went on to likes of the fascinating vampire film Daybreakers (2009), the excellent Robert Heinlein-adapted time paradox film Predestination (2014) and the Saw series sequel Jigsaw (2017).
The Spierig Brothers have made consistently above average efforts in everything they have done so I was interested to see what they would do when it came to the haunted house story but they disappoint. There are one or two fairly tepid jumps – one where Jason Clarke is sitting in front of a shaving mirror, which keeps adjusting to focus on a chair behind him when he is not looking; another where Helen Mirren is shot at by a possessed Finn Scicluna-O’Prey. On the other hand, the latter third of the show where Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke are dealing with the unleashed spirit of Corporal Block does slip into being Standard Ghost Story Assault #127. You cannot help but feel that the Spierig Brothers could have pushed the material further than they did.
The house is an impressive edifice of narrow wooden halls, ramp-like stairs, strange doors that lead into open space or open out of cupboards – much of which has been modelled on the real-life Winchester House and its eccentric designs. It looks impressive recreated on a set (in Australia), albeit made larger in size because the real Winchester House is too cramped to shoot in. The one thing the Spierig Brothers do is attempt to give Sarah Winchester a rationale for her building experiments – she has become a medium for those killed by the Winchester Rifle and is rebuilding the rooms they died in so as to either exorcise or trap them (although this explanation says nothing about those who died out in the open such as the battlefield or during the Indian Wars). The slight disappointment is that once the house is introduced, the strangeness of its design is forgotten about and doesn’t feature again except as backdrop.
Helen Mirren headlines the show with her customary regal presence as Sarah Winchester. The rest of the cast are all Australian actors (all affecting American accents), including the increasingly well-known Jason Clarke; Bruce Spence, the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2 (1981), as the butler; and Angus Sampson, alias Tucker in the Insidious films, as the construction foreman. Third-billed is Sarah Snook, who gave a sensational performance in the Spierig Brothers’ Predestination, although she has a fairly anonymous role here as Sarah’s niece.
(Nominee for Best Production Design at this site’s Best of 2018 Awards).