The gothic supernatural horror is a low-prestige genre and a risky platform to use for a contentious political issue like gun control. It takes a brave filmmaker to imply moral culpability for anyone who makes instruments of death: that is the quicksand on which the film Winchester (2018) stands or falls.
To understand the message of this unremarkable but well executed 19th century horror story, viewers need to be aware that the Winchester Repeating Arms Company was and still is one of the world’s biggest arms manufacturers. It helps also to understand the impact of a rapid-fire lever-action weapon when pitted against older single-shot firearms. It’s the same as the difference between the modern AR-15 assault rifles used in mass shootings and a regular hunting rifle. When it first appeared, the Winchester repeater was described as that “damned Yankee rifle they load on Sunday and shoot all week”. It led to carnage in the Civil War, and like the AR-15, was the most lethal killing machine of its time.
The film’s plotline is simple. Heiress to the company, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) is a deeply troubled soul. She believes her massive sprawling mansion is haunted and she is cursed by the ghost of every person killed by a Winchester firearm. She obsessively adds a new room in the mansion for each identified ghost and building continues 24 hours a day. The Winchester Company board of directors wants her certified insane to gain her 51% controlling stake so it hires Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to fabricate a report on her mental state. He is selected for the task because he is a doctor with a drug problem and heavily in debt. As Price spends time at the mansion he discovers more than he expected.
For a horror story, there is little narrative originality here and the standard spook clichés are in ample supply. The set design is a richly ornate reproduction of what is today called the Winchester Mystery House, a popular tourist attraction in San Jose, California. British Shakespearean actress Helen Mirren is an odd choice for an American heiress, but her imperious performance is impeccable for a recluse burdened by grief, guilt, and the supernatural. Jason Clarke is well cast as a fallen medico struggling to recover from the tragic loss of his family. All the right ingredients are present and accounted for in what is solid B-grade shlock.
What is there to commend this film? There is a dawning moment of recognition in the early chapter when the parallel with today’s gun control debate becomes apparent. That is not to say it is obvious, and many viewers will read it as a horror story, pure and simple. The filmmaker does not sermonise nor overtly point fingers, but the notion that there is or should be moral accountability on every weapon maker for every death brought about by their work will be confronting for many. If that is so, this ordinary horror rises beyond its station.
Director: The Spierig Brothers
Stars: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke