Winchester Review: Dame Helen Mirren Has a Ghost Problem

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people – or so says the argument that of course is hogwash. That line (or a version of it) is used in the movie Winchester to appease the Winchester widow, Sarah (Helen Mirren) that her house is not haunted by all those souls who were violently taken from this earth by the gun that bears her family name.

The primary issue with Winchester is that it tries to have it both ways. It tries to be a horror movie and one that also delivers its scares with a message about the terrors of guns. Yes, the rifle that bears Sarah’s family moniker was an integral part of a national slaughter (i.e. The Civil War) and the great expansion out west. In the film Winchester, we get a “based on true events” account of how Sarah dealt with her grief over the spilled blood drawn as her family became wealthy over it. In short, she accepts the fact that she and her family are cursed.

As society nears the close of the nineteenth century, Sarah Winchester holds a majority claim in the company. Fearing that she’s losing her mind, the board of directors sends in a doctor, Eric Price (Jason Clarke), to assess the heiress/company leader’s psychological soundness. Mrs. Winchester obliges and opens her home to the good doctor. On that first night, he sees things. But, he is a bit drug-addled, so perhaps it is merely hallucinations. Then, as he grows closer to the lady of the house and she begins to open up about her life and loss (her husband and child both perished at the hands of the “shadows,” or so she believes), she gets him off drugs and now his hallucinations could be due to withdrawal.

The old “is it real or is it in my head” back and forth truly slows down this film that could have been a decent thriller. Winchester is watchable, which is more than can be said for a legion of horror movies that come out each year. Mirren and Clarke do their best to elevate the material and we believe that each thinks they are in a better film than they are! Sadly, it is painfully slow and the scares come off more as “gotcha” moments that never truly add up to another much more than a momentary flash of the heart rate and nothing that suspends the length or a cinematic narrative.


Perhaps in a year that was that saw the genre of horror so elevated, our standards have inched up. That could be, but a molasses moving drama, coupled with canned scares does not necessarily add up to a spooker that will stand the test of time.

There could be a message in Winchester that tied it to our current guns permeating society and killing an entire generation climate. It tries to paint those machines of death, that are truly only made for one thing and one thing only and that is killing, as the source of much misery. But, then the script by Tom Vaughn and co-directors Michael and Peter Spierig goes on horror autopilot and returns to its “gotcha” scary beats that must rear their head with ever increasing intensity as the running time moves forward. Then, the chance to make any kind of weapons of death statements are drowned out by forced scares with limited effect.

Mirren dazzles, as she always does. We just wish the promise of this film – Oscar winner plays grieving widow of a gun empire who believes gun victims are haunting her family mansion – was what we received. Instead, audiences get a slow trudge that merely simmers and never boils.

Grade: C-