Winchester was not what was expected. It’s good, but it really did catch me off guard.

It’s about Sarah Winchester and her remarkable house. The heir and majority shareholder of the gun company spent the latter part of her life endlessly building and rebuilding her mansion, driven by the guilt of the many killed by her company’s products. In a situation all too prescient, Winchester repeaters (which you’ll recognise if you’ve ever watched a Western) were high powered, high capacity rifles with a very high rate of fire for the time, that found their way into private hands as a much sought-after consumer product. By the time she died in 1922, the house had 160 rooms, with many others that had been removed or replaced. It’s a real place and one of the stranger wonders of the world.

Dame Helen Mirren, Oscar Winner and three-time nominee, plays the matriarch, while Jason Clarke, fresh off the acclaimed Mudbound plays Dr Eric Price, sent to evaluate her mental state. The always great Sarah Snook plays Sarah Winchester’s niece. The set up makes it sound like a prestige drama, probably adapted from some serious, well regarded book. It is not. It is a haunted house movie. And that’s a very pleasant surprise.

Sarah Winchester believes the house is haunted. It’s why she keeps building it. Eric Price, as the film’s obligatory man of reason and science, dismisses it, but begins seeing things himself. We’re given enough to wonder if any of it is real but we never doubt that it is completely real for the characters.

It’s hard not to love Helen Mirren for doing films like this. She’s one of the most respected actresses in the world, yet actively campaigned to be in the Fast and the Furious, and will cheerfully and enthusiastically star in a small-budget Australian horror film full of jump scares. It’s hard to overstate how much gusto she has, wandering the house in a full black veil through the night. She arrives into the film with all the weight and mythic ceremony an acclaimed performer like herself has earned, a black clad figure at the head of a dinner table, as if she’d been summoned. She delivers pronouncements about the nature of ghosts with the same conviction Ian McKellen yelled ‘Aim for the trolls!’ and Michael Caine said ‘Why the bees? They’ve always been our friends!’

Jason Clarke matches her well, jumping into the pulpy role of a laudanum-addicted doctor, crushed by guilt, grief and visions, but still convinced that it’s all in everyone’s heads. It’s the role every good horror film needs: the sceptic, who mirrors the audience’s disbelief. Clarke has carved out a niche playing characters who are very good at their jobs but who’ve hit tough times or are crippled by personal flaws. It’s a real pity there aren’t more noir detective roles out there these days, because he’d be perfect. Sarah Snook is great, but pointing that out is redundant. She’s always great.

The cast has more than enough talent and chemistry that it could have been a deadly serious film about a very eccentric historical figure. Instead, the film sticks to its formula. It’s a series of slow builds with sudden scares. At a brisk 99 minutes, it keeps the pressure on, especially in the first hour, and you never feel safe or comfortable. It looks great, every shot mirroring the clutter of the house’s layout.

I hesitated to tell you it was a haunted house movie. Going in blind was a lot of fun. However, I’m confident that even knowing it’s a horror movie, it’ll get you. There’s a perpetual arms race going on between movie goers and movie makers. As viewers get wise to tricks and start anticipating when the scare comes and start seeing the rhythm, film makers switch tactics. This is a perfect example. I never got a hold of the film’s rhythm and every scare got me.

The Spierieg Brothers have been doing horror for a long time, and they know their craft. It’s a focused, single minded film that doesn’t overreach and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s all about setting mood and building to the next scare. It does touch on the gun issue and the crushing inevitably of their manufacture. The doctor initially assumes that Sarah must be grieving for her lost husband, not for the victims of her wares, that never even occurs to him. The film doesn’t slow down for long scenes of discussion.

The scene where Sarah Winchester, in response to Dr Price praising her company’s products, unaware of her loathing for them, says: ‘If a gun kills people, which it is designed to do, can it really be called ‘misuse?’ is the last statement anyone makes on the issue. Then again, what more really needs to be said?


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