“Winchester” – The house built for ghosts
Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD copy; 2018; PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: “Driven by the Spirits: The Making of ‘Winchester’”
WINCHESTER HOUSE in San Jose, a short drive from San Francisco, is one of America’s most haunted houses. It’s biggest “ghost” may be its builder, Sarah Winchester (1839-1922), the widow of William Wirt Winchester and heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
Winchester House has been explored by nearly every paranormal show and society including “Ghost Adventures” and “Ghost Hunters. It was built to house victims of gun violence, specifically the Henry rifle, known as “the gun that won the West.” “What that really means is that it killed a whole lot of people,” Co-writer/co-director Peter Spierig says in “Driven by the Spirits: The Making of ‘Winchester,’” the sole bonus feature on Lionsgate’s presentation.
The Spierig twins, Peter and Michael, leave the debate on Second Amendment rights and gun violence behind for a standard haunted house/ghost story, even if Sarah was anything but typical. The repeater could fire a shot every three seconds and, according to Prairieghosts.com, was a favorite of Northern troops during the Civil War. But after losing her infant daughter and husband, Sarah came to believe the Winchester guns brought more tragedy than wealth. Heartbroken, she visited a medium who told her the weapons were cursed. She was advised to start a new life, and build a home for those who had died by the Winchester brand.
It was a mission Sarah Winchester would keep throughout her life, creating an ever expanding refuge for the ghosts of gun violence, a jumping-off spot for them to move on or remain on the Earthly plane.
“The purpose of her building is to expiate the souls of the people that had been killed by the Winchester rifle. She feels the weight of their deaths upon her very, very heavily,” says Helen Mirren, who portrays Sarah in the film from the Spierig brothers.
Is Sarah Winchester crazy? In the film, she owns more than 50 percent of the company stock and its Board of Directors are concerned. Fearing her recent emphasis on new items – roller skates – they fear she may divert interests away from weapons manufacturing and lucrative government contracts. Psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is brought on board to evaluate Sarah. His not-so-secret assignment: prove she is mentally unstable and unfit to serve on the Board.
“Jason Clarke’s character (Price) is brought out to the house under the pretense of assessing Mrs. Winchester’s state of mind. However, Sarah Winchester has some ulterior motives” of her own,” Co-writer/co-director Michael Spierig says. Price is also in mourning, having lost his wife. He self-medicates with alcohol and laudanum.
“This is a ghost story … a haunted house story, but to know that this is a real story about a real place and a real person makes it really terrifying,” says Peter Spierig.
Terrifying? Um … not so much; creepy and provocative, yes. The Spierigs have a good plot turn, but mostly rely on jump scares, great sets and costumes, and their Oscar-winning actress. But Clarke seems miscast, and co-stars Sara Snook and Finn only there for color. The most fun comes from spotting Angus Sampson, Tucker of the “Insidious” films, as John Hansen, Sarah’s foreman.
Once Sarah began building the house, construction continued non-stop, 24/7. It had 600 rooms before the 1906 earthquake hit, destroying the top three floors. At present, there are 160 rooms over 24,000 feet, with 47 fireplaces, 40 stairways, six kitchens and three elevators.
Tours are available through winchestermysteryhouse.com.
Ghost stories are typically dark and “Winchester” is no exception. But Cinematographer Ben Nott maintains a surprisingly warm palette despite the shadows, frosted breath and dying hothouse greenery. Where the 1080p transfer (2.39:1) excels is in detail and texture. Replication of the house is stunning.
“Most of the embellishment on Sarah Winchester’s mourning dresses is real Edwardian lace,” Costume Designer Wendy Cook explains. “The lace had two intentions, to give some softness to [the character] so that she actually had some light and shade … to give [her] some vulnerability. Then, on a technical level, I needed a lot of texture in the actual fabrics so that the camera actually had something to shoot so [the dress] wouldn’t get sunk into a black hole.”
Viewers will also find good detail tucked into “Winchester’s” dark nooks and crannies. These blacks are solid. Most of the film was shot in Australia, where the production team searched for similar architecture to use. The Winchester House was built of wood, while most Australian homes are made from stone, so lots of CGI was used to transform buildings into one. An aerial view of the real Winchester House appears as if we’re looking down on a village rather than a single home.
The Winchester House itself is a maze of rooms, doorways and stairs leading to nowhere. “A room is built on top of a room; they’re not on the same level. It’s never one consistent style or one consistent form of construction. There are many shapes and sizes to the rooms,” Peter Spierig says.
Production Designer Matt Putland told the New York Post he snapped more than 300 photographs of doorknobs, hinges, and rare 19th century Lincrusta wallpaper, “still in its original packaging, meant for rooms that were never built.” Reproducing construction of 150 years ago was a challenge, but “Winchester” pulls it off. “It’s such a complex of twists and turns, of hallways and staircases, and rooms within rooms … doors that open to nothing and doors that open to two-story drops … Doors in floors! It was anything goes in that house.”
The six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track delivers good dynamic range. Dialogue is consistently clear throughout and speakers get a fine workout with a wide variety of haunted house and earthquake effects. Peter Spierig composed the score, but Stephen Foster is responsible for “Beautiful Dreamer,” a classic folk tune used to announce some of Sarah’s ghostly visitors. As in Nott’s lighting choices, Spierig employs unique themes.
Only the one – “Driven by the Spirits: The Making of ‘Winchester.’” Running just over 22 minutes, it’s loaded with interviews and production details.
With its blend of truth and fiction, “Winchester” is more than a B-grade story. Traditional ghost story elements entertain, and warrant better than Rottentomatoe’s unbelievable 14 percent rating. Still, intentionally or not, Sarah Winchester and her home for lost souls have a place in the current debate on gun violence and can be somewhat uncomfortable.
But most good ghost stories are.
- Kay Reynolds