The best ghost stories aren’t merely about things that go bump in the night. They’re about the crippling weight of the past and why it creeps into the present.
Now is the perfect time for the horror film Winchester. Although it seems like the kind of dreck studios dump on us in the dead of winter, it emerges as a timely, thoughtful tale of terror.
Helen Mirren stars as Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester firearms fortune. The legend goes that she continued construction on her California mansion to house the spirits of all those killed by the Winchester rifle.
This lavish palace is an eerie oddity, full of secret doors, creepy corridors and maze-like staircases. But Winchester isn’t simply a ride through this funhouse. Co-writers / directors Peter and Michael Spierig (Predestination, Jigsaw) dig deeper, painting a poignant portrait of a woman — and a nation — haunted by a history of violence. Her pain is particularly resonant now, as stories of gun deaths dominate the daily news cycle.
The Spierig Brothers get inside Sarah’s mind through psychiatrist Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), hired by Winchester shareholders to deem Sarah mentally unfit to run the company. But Dr. Price has demons of his own, including a laudanum addiction that makes him dismiss Sarah’s ghostly houseguests as drug-induced hallucinations. Like her, he also lost his spouse and grew overwhelmed by grief and guilt. Mirren and Clarke exude strong chemistry as these two kindred spirits.
Sarah turns the tables on Dr. Price and helps him overcome the ghosts of his past, all while he encounters hers. As literal and figurative skeletons come out of the closet, the film turns into a tender tale of people helping each other through a harrowing situation.
Something happened in the theater that mirrored this sort of kindness. Before the film began, an elderly woman sat alone, nervously fidgeting in her seat. When two other older women sat down behind her, she turned to them and asked, “What have you heard about this movie?” One giggled and said, “Not much. We don’t even really like horror, but we never miss a Helen Mirren movie.”
The lone woman replied, “Same here. I hope it’s not too scary. I can’t handle scary stuff.” The two women then invited her to sit with them, and they got through the scary parts together, turning to one another and laughing to relieve the tension. This sweet sign of solidarity represents the kind of communal experience we all hope to have when we see a horror movie.
Winchester is a charmingly old-fashioned entry in the genre. It’s the kind of scary movie those ladies probably grew up with — a deliberately paced drama sprinkled with elegantly spooky elements rather than gory spectacles and jump scares. It plays out like a vehicle for Vincent Price or Peter Cushing.
Yes, I’m saying Winchester is your grandmother’s horror film, and I mean that as a compliment. If you’re all caught up on Oscar fare and you want to catch a flick in this dry season for cinema, take your granny to this film. It will spook you both, but it will also give you plenty to talk about afterwards. That’s the sign of a great horror film.