Anthony's Film Review

Winchester (2018)

As a hybrid of biography and horror, it's mildly chilling yet entertaining...

For this review, I'm going to do something rather unique: assume the role of both a film reviewer and a travel writer. Hopefully, this approach will produce something that is still interesting enough to read.

If you like to tour unique and eccentric places, here's a suggestion for you: the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Located in the west portion of the city on Winchester Boulevard, just one block west from a high-end shopping and residential hub called Santana Row, the Winchester Mystery House is a mansion that once belonged to Sarah Winchester, who had inherited her late husband's wealth and majority ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The house is as eccentric as its owner. You see, Mrs. Winchester believed she was being haunted by the ghosts of all the people who had been killed by Winchester rifles. In response, she purchased a small farmhouse in San Jose and, until her death, paid to have the house undergo constant construction work to expand its size and create traps for the spirits. The small farmhouse grew to a seven-story mansion that was partially destroyed by the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. It now stands as a four-story tourist attraction catering to fans of the paranormal, architecture, or just good old-fashioned travel.

I visited the Winchester Mystery House sometime around the year 2010. I was not a believer of the supernatural, nor was I anywhere close to an admirer of architectural art, but I was at least a tourist who wanted to see something out of the ordinary. And boy, was this place out of the ordinary! I remember seeing a staircase that went into a ceiling, a flight of stairs that had a shallow incline but made six right-angle turns within a small rectangular space just to go up one floor, a door that opened to a drop from the second story, doors and windows in spots where you never expect to find doors and windows, and various oddities that reflect the number 13. If you believe in ghosts, you will certainly appreciate this place. If not, you can still get a kick out of thinking that Mrs. Winchester was an architect who was just terrible at it, not to mention insane. That was certainly my takeaway from visiting Mrs. Winchester's mansion.

Now let's fast-forward to February 2018, when the part-biography part-horror movie Winchester hit theaters. The film features Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester and Jason Clarke as psychiatrist Dr. Eric Price, plus a supporting cast that includes Sarah Snook as Mrs. Winchester's niece Marion and Finn Scicluna-O'Prey as Marion's son Henry. The only thing I will really say about the characters is that they are interesting enough to see on screen, and the actors and actresses at least do not underperform in any way. Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke do stand out, though not by too much. Basically, the film gets a passing grade for characters.

As for the plot, I would also give it just a passing grade. It moves along at enough of a pace to avoid being too slow. The first couple of minutes focus on Dr. Price as he is called to the Winchester mansion and perform a mental health evaluation on Mrs. Winchester to see if she is capable of handling the business of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. After the film finally introduces Mrs. Winchester, we are treated to scenes of dialogue between Winchester and Price, the ongoing construction work of the mansion, and moments involving ghost sightings and paranormal activity. The movie plods along during the first half, before getting a bit more interesting during the climax that is more horror-oriented than before.

How scary is this movie? It's mildly so. I'm not saying that the scary images look so fake that they're not scary at all. I do give this film credit for scaring the audience through the element of surprise. Many of the moments of fear come from sudden and brief displays of hideous ghosts. I also liked how the dim lighting and creepy sounds give the setting a mysterious feel, because it allowed me to experience the Winchester Mystery House the way a believer of the supernatural would. I did enjoy watching tense moments at the weird staircases I mentioned earlier, because it's a far cry from seeing them myself in real life without any belief in ghosts.

So my overall rating for this movie is mildly positive. It is nowhere at the level of great horror movies like The Exorcist and The Shining. At least there was enough for me to not fall asleep. I appreciated how the movie transitioned from almost-pure biography to almost-pure horror in a gradual fashion, not in an abrupt manner that would leave me feeling unsettled. The writers handled this uncommon genre combination in a way that works. In the end, I was satisfied enough.

The only thing I am wondering now is what it would be like to watch the film Winchester within a room at the Winchester Mystery House itself, perhaps at night. I'm not one of those people who attended a premiere screening at that place, so I'll leave it to people who did attend to tell you what that is like. But no matter how you feel about this movie, we can at least agree that more tourists will stop by San Jose to check out Sarah Winchester's odd mansion and learn about why she did things the way she did. Based on my experience, you can expect the tour to be as good, or more likely better, than watching the film Winchester. Heck, after seeing the movie, I might as well make another visit, especially as a few new rooms are now open to the public. It should be fun.

Anthony's Rating:

For more information about Winchester, visit the Internet Movie Database.


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