From Night of the Living Dead to A Nightmare on Elm Street to Get Out, the horror genre has a long tradition of showing Americans anxieties they’d rather ignore. In an era when mass shootings don’t even earn significant news coverage, it’s hard to think of an issue more ripe for horror attention than gun violence (an issue I’ve written about elsewhere).
Winchester invokes these fears, but is so thuddingly stupid that it transforms an incompetent ghost story into something morally reprehensible.
For most of its 99 minute runtime, Winchester merely disappoints. The story of a psychologist (Jason Clarke) hired to assess the mental state of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), widow of the weapons manufacturer, the film takes place in a sprawling California mansion, where construction crews work around the clock to add rooms to the house. The ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles, we eventually learn, haunt Sarah, compelling her to recreate the rooms in which they died, so she can either free kind spirits or trap the malevolent.
That’s a solid premise and a great setting, but directors Michael and Peter Spierig do nothing interesting with the space. The constant sound of saws and hammering make for occasionally creepy ambiance, but — with the exception of a green room — every part of the Winchester house feels like the same 19th century drawing room.
Worse yet, the directors never establish the geography of the house or the spatial relations between threat and victim. Even a simple sequence in which a possessed character chases Mirren up a partitioned flight of stairs fails to build tension because the directors use only single character close-ups. This reliance on tight close-ups leave them with only one type of scare — a ghost jumps into frame and shouts “boo!” — which they employ liberally.
Everything in the movie in the movie feels lazy, from the actors’ wobbly accents to the poor plotting to the conflation of startles for scares, but at least Winchester seemed to have its heart in the right place. In one of the few effective dialogue bits, Sarah rejects the suggestion that the right person could use guns for good, as they were designed only to kill. It might be an artless statement in a shoddy horror movie, but it has greater moral resolve than most politicians.
At least, that’s how it seemed, until the climax.
The film’s principle monster is the ghost of a Confederate solider who, having seen his brothers and comrades killed by their guns, takes a rifle into a Winchester factory and commits his own mass shooting. Again, this feels like a proper reckoning, acknowledging that there’s no easy answer to the problem and guilt affects us all, no matter how sorry we feel.
The ghost uses his powers to raise dozens of rifles and point them at Clarke and Mirren. But then Clarke’s character grabs a Winchester rifle and, loading it with a special bullet, shoots the ghost and saves the day.
A good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. Not only does this resolution fail on a plot level, but it completely betrays the sentiments expressed earlier in the film. All of the gravity Winchester invoked, all of the real-world investment it earned, gets flushed away in a moment of crappy writing.
Winchester is a bad movie — badly written, badly acted, and badly directed — and had it not brought up gun violence, that’s all it would have been. But by cynically introducing real-world violence as a shoddy plot device, refusing to deal with the ramifications of the issue, Winchester made itself a despicable movie. We can only hope it will, like thousands of other lazy horror movies, be completely forgotten.