Sunday, February 25, 2018

It Came From The Cineplex: Winchester

Winchester was written by Tom Vaughan and the Spierig Brothers. It was directed by the Spierig Brothers.

Vaughan has a pretty small resume, as he previously wrote Unstoppable and Playing House. The Spierig Brothers (Michael and Peter) previously wrote AND directed The Big Picture, Undead, Daybreakers and Predestination (which is a VERY bizarre little time-travel film). They also directed (but didn't write) Jigsaw.

The film concerns the real life Sarah Winchester and her bizarre, maze-like mansion that  was haunted by the ghosts of everyone ever killed by her company's weapons.

That's actually a cool little premise for a horror film. Unfortunately the filmmakers flubbed it big time, as Winchester isn't the least bit scary. I know I say that a lot in my reviews, but it's never been more true here. There's no blood or gore, no spooky or interesting ghost designs or anything even remotely frightening in its ninety nine minute runtime. Like most modern horror films it's rated PG-13, but I honestly don't know why. They could have just as easily rated it G. I've seen scarier episodes of The Twilight Zone on TV.

It's obvious the filmmakers are trying to evoke the mood of the Hammer Horror films of the 1960s and 1970s here. All the classic Hammer ingredients are present: the reclusive heiress with a dark secret, a creepy Gothic mansion filled with ghosts, and a general atmosphere of dread. Unfortunately the filmmakers have no idea what made the Hammer films so appealing, and miss the mark by a wide margin. Pick the worst movie Hammer  Studios ever made, and it'd still be spookier than this mess.

There's also a very strong anti-gun message in the film, which is timely I suppose. Unfortunately it's given so little focus that the filmmakers might as well not have bothered with it.

The producers took advantage of real life to loudly proclaim that this film is "inspired by true events." Technically, I guess that's correct. There really was a Sarah Winchester, she really was the heiress to the Winchester Rifle fortune, she really did live in a vast mansion and she really ordered non-stop construction on it. 

As you might expect, that's where the truth ends. Everything else about the movie is pure and utter bullsh*t. Obviously the mansion isn't haunted by the demons of everyone who was ever killed by a Winchester rifle, and Sarah didn't try to trap them all in the every-growing number of rooms inside her mansion. 

That's all just a minor detail to the producers of course. Because a small part of the story is true, they're hoping the audience will believe the whole thing is fact!

At first I wondered how the filmmakers managed to con an Oscar™-winning actress like Helen Mirren into starring in a lukewarm vehicle like this one. I suspected maybe they'd blackmailed her somehow. But after checking out her resume, I was surprised to see she's not above appearing in genre films. She previously starred in Excalibur, 2010, The Twilight Zone (the 1980s version), The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, RED, Monsters University and RED 2. Still, Winchester seems like a step down for her.

Apparently a large portion of the general public is under the impression that Winchester is a big budget theatrical version of the Supernatural TV series. This is because people are idiots. See, Supernatural is about Sam and Dean Winchester, two brothers who travel the country hunting ghosts and demons. Because of this confusion, the movie's being released in some countries as Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built. Oy.

So far the film's a very mild box office success, grossing $23 million against it's tiny $3.5 million budget.


The Plot:
In 1906, shareholders from the Winchester Repeating Arms Company approach prominent psychiatrist Dr. Eric Prince (played by Jason Clarke). They're concerned about Sarah Winchester, the widow of the company founder, who's inherited his $20 million fortune and a controlling stake of the company.

According to the shareholders, the deaths of Sarah's husband and child have caused her behavior to become erratic. She's started consulting mediums and psychics, holding seances in the mansion. Even worse, she believes her home is haunted by the 
ghosts of everyone ever killed by her company's weapons. To that end, the mansion is continually under construction, as she believes this will somehow trap the angry spirits inside. 

The shareholders are anxious to ship Sarah off to the nuthouse, and want Eric to pronounce her mentally fit to run the company. To make sure they get the diagnosis they want, they offer him a large bonus if he says the old lady's nuts.

Eric has a troubled past as well, as he's struggling to get over the recent death of his wife Ruby. To help ease his pain, he's become addicted to laudanum and consorts with known prostitutes (GASP!). He's reluctant to get involved with the shareholders, but can't say no to the cash. He eventually agrees to examine Sarah.

Eric arrives at the Winchester Mansion, where he's greeted by Sarah's niece Marion Marriot, and her young son Henry. Marion knows why Eric's there, and is openly hostile toward him. She gives Eric a tour of the bizarre house— a maze-like space with no rhyme or reason, containing stairs that lead to the ceiling, interior walls filled with pointless windows and doors that open to nothing. She shows him to his room on an upper floor.

As Eric prepares for dinner, he suddenly sees a ghost in the mirror, standing behind him. When he turns, of course there's nothing there. He laughs it off, chalking it up to a laudanum hallucination and shakily heads downstairs. He enters the dining room, where he finally meets Sarah. Dinner is tense to say the least, as she knows why he's there as well, and is cold and distant to him.

That night Eric can't sleep, so he leaves his room and explores. He sneaks past the construction crew, who work on the house 24/7. He hears voices coming from a greenhouse attached to the mansion, and tries to enter. Unfortunately the door and windows have been boarded up, meaning no one could possibly be inside. 

Just then there's a commotion, and he sees Henry standing on a high window ledge. He jumps, and Eric somehow manages to run several hundred feet and catch him before he hits the ground. Marion thanks Eric for saving her son, and begins to warm up a bit. She admits Henry's been acting strangely lately, almost like he was... possessed.

The next day Eric interviews Sarah to see if she's crazy or not. She admits she believes in ghosts, and knows all about his laudanum addiction. She has the drugs removed from his room, and forbids him from wandering the halls after hours. She even posts a guard outside his room to make sure he doesn't leave! 

That night, Eric figures a way to sneak out and for some reason goes exploring again. He spots Sarah in her study, seemingly possessed as she stares straight ahead while drawing plans for a new room.

The next day, Sarah shows Eric that she keeps records of everyone ever killed by a Winchester rifle, an accomplishment which seems dubious at best. She says whenever she senses a new ghost, she's compelled to design a room for it. Once it's done, the ghost enters the room, and she has it sealed inside with thirteen nails. This is why the mansion contains so many superfluous rooms— each one allegedly has a ghost trapped inside. 

Eric immediately pronounces Sarah insane, she's removed from the company and the film ends. Oh, wait, I up that entire sentence. Instead he believes her, and the movie still has an hour to go.

Sarah notices that Eric always carries a Winchester shell with him. He reluctantly explains that several years ago he was shot and killed by a rifle (!), but apparently got better. He had the shell engraved with the words "Together Forever," and keeps it as a reminder of how precious and fragile life is or something.

The workers finish the new room Sarah drew, which is filled with cabinets containing one of every type of weapon the Winchester company sells. While Eric and Marion chat, Henry's possessed by a spirit again. He sneaks off, grabs a rife from the new ghost room and tries to shoot Sarah with it. Fortunately Eric stops him in time. A visibly shaken Sarah says this new ghost is the most violent one she's ever encountered, and it'll take all her strength to defeat it.

Eric says they need to get Henry to a hospital stat, and Marion agrees. Sarah, now in full crazy mode, forbids it, saying they can handle him themselves. Eric looks for a phone, and encounters a creepy butler. He turns out to be the ghost of Benjamin Block, a Confederate soldier whose brothers were both killed by Winchesters. We then see a flashback, as Ben entered the Winchester office and killed fifteen employees before the police shot him to death. The gun room Sarah had built is an exact duplicate of the one in which Ben died.

Suddenly the mansion begins shaking, as the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake hits (apparently?). Workers and servants are killed as parts of the mansion collapse and rain down on them. Ghost Ben locks Sarah inside the gun room and starts tossing her around, slamming her against the walls. Amazingly, this somehow doesn't kill the frail, elderly woman.

In all the confusion, the still-possessed Henry takes off running, as Marion chases after him. Eric runs through the shaking mansion, and is confronted by more ghosts who were killed by Winchester rifles. So I guess they weren't "trapped" in their rooms after all? I'm confused. 

Eric sees the door to the greenhouse is now open, and ducks inside. There he sees the ghost of his wife Ruby, and it's revealed that she was actually mentally ill, but Eric somehow missed all the signs. At the height of her craziness, she shot Eric with a rifle before turning it on herself. He tells her he's sorry, and Ghost Ruby forgives him for screwing up her diagnosis. She tells him he needs to help Sarah defeat Ghost Ben.

Down in the basement, Marion and Henry are cornered by the ghosts of Ben's brothers. Upstairs, Eric finds Sarah and traps Ghost Ben in the room. Ben's too powerful to defeat though, until Eric realizes he's terrified of his rifle shell memento. He grabs one of the rifles from the shelves, puts the magical engraved shell in it, and uses it to shoot Ghost Ben. He's destroyed, and for some reason this causes all the other spirits to return to their rooms and decide to be trapped again. The ghosts of Ben's brothers disappear as well, saving Marion and Henry.

Everything's then wrapped up, as Eric's absolved of his guilt and pronounces Sarah to be sane. Sarah, Marion and Henry wave as he drives off.

Inside the mansion, we zoom in on one of the ghost trap rooms. A nail falls out of a board sealing the door...

• In the film, we're told that Sarah Winchesters's fortune amounted to $20 million, which made her one of the richest women in the world. Thing is, $20 million doesn't sound like all that much money today.

If you plug that amount into an inflation calculator though, her $20 million dollar inheritance would be worth around $525 million today. Holy crap!

• This is a production still of Helen Mirren as the reclusive and enigmatic Sarah Winchester.

The shot's based on this famous image of the real Sarah Winchester. As you can see from the caption, this is the "only known portrait of her in existence."

Except for this one, of course, which I found after about thirty seconds of googling. I guess I should cut 'em a break, as people weren't able to search the internet in 1906.

• The real Sarah Winchester had severe, debilitating arthritis that made it painful to raise her feet more than a couple of inches. Because of this, it was impossible for her to climb stairs. To remedy this, she had a series of short risers placed in one of the house's stairwells. This allowed her to reach the upper floors with a minimum of pain.

Credit where it's due
— this is actually shown in the movie, as Eric remarks on a series of ramps leading to an upper floor. Kudos!

Of course once it's established that Sarah has arthritis, it's never brought up again and she never displays any trouble getting around. In fact Ghost Ben throws the old gal against the wall a few times, with little or no damage!

• I have to admit, the idea that Sarah and her mansion are being haunted by the ghosts of everyone ever killed by a Winchester rifle is actually pretty clever.

Unfortunately the concept was lifted directly from DC Comic's Saga Of The Swamp Thing #45. In that issue, two couples enter the deserted mansion of the late Amy Cambridge, the heiress of the Cambridge Repeater Rifle Co. I guess the names were changed to protect the innocent? The intruders soon get lost in the vast, maze-like home, which is haunted by the ghosts of everyone slaughtered by the company's guns (!).

Sounds pretty familiar, eh? Paging the Warner Bros. Legal Team!

• At one point, Sarah tells Eric that she keeps detailed records of every person who was ever killed by a Winchester rifle. Just how she manages to accomplish this amazing feat is left to our imaginations.

Where the hell is she getting this info? Is she constantly in touch with every coroner's office all across the country? What about victims in remote areas, whose deaths are likely to go unreported?

Keeping records like this would be tough even in today's high-tech and interconnected world. It would be downright impossible in 19 freakin' 06!

• Supposedly Sarah builds the various rooms in her house to trap the angry ghosts that haunt her mansion. Once a ghost is lured into a room, the door's sealed shut with thirteen nails. For some reason, this magic number of nails prevents the ghost from escaping.

But then near the end of the ghosts all start pushing the nails out of their doors, escape their rooms and start wreaking havoc on the mansion and staff. But at the end of the movie, Eric "kills" Ghost Ben, which causes all the other spirits to obediently return to their rooms so they can be sealed in again.

Wha...? So apparently these ghosts had the power to remove the nails in their doors and escape any time they wanted, but didn't do so for years. Why they never did so is left to our imaginations. Even more puzzling, once the plot runs its course, they all dutifully float back into their rooms and wait to be sealed in again. Got it.

• Late in the third act, the Winchester mansion starts shaking, as parts of it come crashing down. It's heavily implied that the huge number of ghosts in the house were causing the destruction, and that's what I assumed happened. 

So imagine my surprise when at the very end of the movie, a caption mentions The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Wha...? So... it wasn't the ghosts shaking the house then, but was actually a perfectly timed earthquake?

That's gotta be one of the worst plot developments in cinema history! It's a movie about ghosts! They're the antagonists, so they should be the ones responsible for knocking down the mansion, not a coincidental act of nature! It doesn't make any sense in terms of storytelling or drama. It's the same thing as finding out the Rebels didn't destroy the Death Star, because it blew up due to faulty wiring.

• Here's a shot of the real Winchester mansion, located in sunny San Jose, California. You can take a tour of it, if you're interested.

Here's a shot of the mansion as seen in the movie. As you can see, they did a pretty good job of recreating it. Well, except for that large tower in the center of the house, which doesn't exist in the present day. So what's it doing in the movie?

Welp, prior to 1906, the mansion was actually SEVEN stories tall, as seen in this actual vintage photo. As you can see, there really was a tower at one point.

However, the house was severely damaged in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which destroyed the top three floors. Sarah was reportedly trapped in her bedroom for several hours before finally being rescued by her construction workers. She left the damage unrepaired, and after that had the workers build outward instead of up.

So the movie version of the house gets the fact that there was once a tower right, but incorrectly depicts the house as being four stories high prior to the quake. Odd.

• Very little filming took place in the actual Winchester mansion. The real house is supposedly very cramped, which made it impossible to fit camera and sound equipment in the various rooms. Most of the mansion's interior were studio sets.

• So what was up with Sarah Winchester? Why did she constantly build and renovate her mansion for decades? Surprisingly, there's no definite answer.

According to legend, she believed her family was cursed by the spirits of the people killed by Winchester rifles (just like in the film). She consulted a spiritual medium named Adam Coons, who advised her to move to the west coast and build a mansion to trap the unruly spirits. 

In 1886, she purchased an eight room house in San Jose, California. She then began renovating the house, and construction went on twenty four hours a day, seven days a week for the next thirty eight years. When asked why, Sarah replied that her psychic told her she'd die if construction on the house ever stopped (!).

The additions to the house followed no obvious rhyme or reason, and included stairs that lead to nowhere, labyrinthine corridors and upper floor doors that open into space. This was supposedly done to confuse the spirits within the house, and prevent them from escaping.

Sarah was also supposedly obsessed with the number thirteen, which was worked into the house as much as possible. There were thirteen bathrooms, thirteen panes of glass in every window, thirteen candles in each chandelier and so on.

As much as fans of the supernatural would love to believe all this, it's a load of hogwash.

Sarah Winchester's biographer did extensive research on her and the house, and could find no evidence to support any of these claims. It's unlikely that Sarah moved to San Jose on the advice of a medium, but because dry climate was good for her debilitating arthritis.

As for why she ordered constant construction on the mansion, the simplest answer is likely the best she wanted to keep her workers employed. Sarah had dozens of carpenters working for her around the clock, and reportedly paid them triple the amount they'd make anywhere else. The mansion's bizarre layout was just her way of giving them something to do!

And an account from a carpenter who actually worked on the house denied the house was filled with "thirteens" as well. According to him, such elements were added after Winchester's death, to make Sarah's story more appealing to tourists!

Winchester steals takes what could have been a clever premise and totally squanders it, giving us a meandering, unfocused and tepid excuse for a film. As is the case with most PG-13 horror movies, there's nothing remotely frightening about it, unless you're terrified by musical stings and incessant jump scares. It even tries slipping in an anti-gun message, but then does absolutely nothing with it. Not even the presence of a talent like Helen Mirren can save this mediocre outing. I give it a well deserved C-.

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