Film review: Winchester

Helen Mirren stars as the eccentric and haunted heiress to the Winchester firearms fortune in this supernatural thriller loosely based on actual events.

Feb 22, 2018, updated Feb 22, 2018

When Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is recruited to gauge the mental state of ageing widow Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), he expects to meet an eccentric but otherwise harmless elderly woman.

Arriving at her bustling estate, he is fascinated by the home’s many curious features and the strange behaviour of his host. But all is not what it seems in this house: a great evil is rising and it has its sights set firmly on Sarah.

Filmed in Melbourne and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig (Predestination, Daybreakers), Winchester is inspired by the true story of Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune. Grief-stricken after a series of personal tragedies, Sarah spent almost 40 years building and rebuilding her large mansion, creating a labyrinth of endless corridors, rooms within rooms and staircases to nowhere – all designed to contain the spirits of those killed by her family’s guns, which she believed were haunting her.

Today, the Winchester Mystery House (located in San Jose, California) is considered a historical landmark and visitors can tour the sprawling mansion which features 161 rooms across seven storeys.

Mirren delivers a strong, sombre performance as Sarah, an eccentric woman whose mind has seemingly been pushed to the brink by years of guilt and grief.

Jason Clarke is also impressive performance as Dr Price, who is struggling to deal with his own demons, while Adelaide-born actress Sarah Snook plays Sarah’s uptight niece, Marion. Individually, the three shine in their respective roles, but there is a lack of on-screen chemistry between them, perhaps due to the uptight nature of their characters’ personalities.

Stunning visual effects and intricate set and costume design combine to bring the Winchester House (and its unearthly occupants) to life in spectacular fashion, and the looming structure is quite a sight to behold.

While the film is promoted as a biography/horror, its reliance on darkness and subtle hints of danger push it into the realm of a supernatural thriller and many of the scares come from catching the briefest glimpse of a dark figure or from what you think you can see in the darkness. Winchester may not be the scariest film this year, but it is an enjoyable way to kill a few hours.

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