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Review: 'Winchester' eschews facts for frights

Posted Tuesday, May 1, 2018 at 4:30 PM Central
Last updated Tuesday, May 1, 2018 at 4:31 PM Central

by John Couture

It's funny, just a week or so ago, I used a similar headline for another review that basically chastised the filmmakers for changing parts of a true story to add suspense to the film's narrative. This week, the filmmakers behind Winchester did the same thing, but I'm all for it.

I guess I'm fickle like that.

I think the main difference is that the previous film was based on substantive facts while Winchester is based mainly on folklore and unreliable sources. So, I give the folks behind Winchester a little more leeway with the details in crafting their tale. I mean, when it comes to ghost stories, what's a few fibs between friends?

That being said, I am a huge fan of the Winchester Mystery House, upon which the film is based, so perhaps that's another reason I give them a pass. For those that don't know, the Sarah Winchester, the matriarch of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, bought a house in San Jose, California at the turn of the 20th century and was continued to build upon it every day until she died 38 years later. The result was a bizarre house with numerous odd rooms and peculiarities such as stairways leading to nowhere and doors that open up to nothing.

Helen Mirren is exquisite as Sarah Winchester and had she not been in the movie, I am confident that the film would have been far less enjoyable. She absorbs the essence of a woman from that time period who is both grieving over the loss of her husband and child and a little bit insane. While the historical record is cloudy when it comes to her motives and mental capacity, the main plot of Winchester revolves around the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company hiring a renowned local doctor played by Jason Clarke to certify that Sarah is insane, thus effectively taking control of the company from her.

Thankfully, the film spends less time on the medical distinctions and more time on the spooks and the result is a suspenseful film with plenty of horror jumps that will appease fans of the genre. Naturally, the doctor has his own vices so the interplay between Sarah and the doctor that drives the film is rich and delivers a satisfying depiction of life in the early 1900s. During this time of the occult and spiritualists, Sarah Winchester wouldn't be the first or last person to be swindled out of their fortune or wits by predators around them.

The film starts and ends with the cultural curiosity that is the Winchester Mystery House and the fact that it is still a popular tourist attraction to this day speaks volumes for its lasting appeal. Given that, the filmmakers did their best to recreate the infamous house on sound stages to help capture the look and feel of the world that surrounded Sarah Winchester.

Winchester also does a great job incorporating the real event of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake into the story. During the film's climax that corresponds with the earthquake, viewers are left wondering if the events in the film were the result of the natural or supernatural realm. Whatever you believe, the earthquake was a turning point in the real Sarah Winchester's life as it marked the moment that she moved out of the house, but construction on the house did continue until her death in 1922.

With such dramatic license, the filmmakers chose a very particular supernatural route to take and by doing so, you have to give them enough suspension of disbelief to let them tell their story. While some may have preferred a more historically accurate telling of the Winchester Mystery House, it is impossible to not be swayed by the romance of the unknown. To that end, I found Winchester to be throroughly entertaining and a good period piece spooker.

Winchester is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.