The great Helen Mirren takes a break from playing either royalty or assassins to take on the real-life role of Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Winchester, a member of the family responsible for the Winchester rifle, in the new movie (of course) Winchester. In the story Sarah is still grieving after the death of her husband, channeling that grief into the endless construction of her San Jose mansion, which she believes is occupied by the ghosts of those killed by the weapons manufactured by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.
While most think her mad for her obsessive work on the house sans direction or overall vision, she believes its hundreds of rooms are necessary. Alongside her are her niece (Sarah Snook) and Eric Price (Jason Clarke), the doctor looking after Sarah as she seems to descend deeper into madness. The movie takes Sarah’s conviction she’s being haunted and makes it literal, turning the story into one of a massive, imposing, chaotic haunted house that was built to house ghosts who are no longer content being locked up.
With the first poster the audience is immediately told the movie is “Inspired by the true events at the most haunted house in history,” which is quite the statement. The image shows a lone figure standing in a window of the dark and spooky mansion, storm clouds gathering in the background. “Terror is building” is placed lower on the poster, a phrase that’s doing some interesting work.
The same “Inspired by…” value proposition is used on the second poster, which ditches the house as a central figure in favor of a close-up of Mirren as Sarah, looking tragic and sad with a black veil of mourning obscuring her face. It’s a bit more effective because…well…Helen Mirren.
As the teaser opens we get a recap of the house at the center of the story as someone explains its confused and disjointed construction and nature. Dr. Price is being dispatched by representatives of the family/company to check on her and they believe her erratic actions are concerning, to say the least. There are a few jump cuts and some talk about evil spirits, but that’s about it, with no real story being offered.
The trailer is selling the movie much like many – many – other films before it. We meet Sarah and get a few aerial shots of the house she’s endlessly working on and adding on to. Dr. Price is sent to meet with her out of concern the old woman has gone mad and while he’s respectful he also makes it clear he’s a skeptic when it comes to supernatural matters, not believing anything he can’t see or touch. That conviction begins to waiver as the house, which she explains is meant to house the spirits of those killed by “the rifle,” seem to want to break free, causing all sorts of mayhem, bursting out of their rooms and seeming to take possession of the living souls in the house.
It’s less “Rebecca-esque” gothic drama and more “Exorcist-esque” body horror. Mirren seems to be giving the role everything she’s got, putting all her years of prestige drama work into selling a ghost story, but there’s nothing here that rises above the standard tropes of the genre. I’m not sure that in the middle of the Blumhouse horror revolution that’s underway this kind of “inspired by real events” approach is going to connect with horror audiences, and fans of straight dramas will likely be uninterested. It’s intriguing, but mainly in that it makes me want to learn more about the house Winchester built.
Online and Social
Both trailers can be found in the “Videos” section, followed by a “Synopsis” section that has a story recap and the cast and crew list. Prompts to share the site on social media are the only other items on the site.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Nothing I’ve seen or am aware of, though I’m sure a handful of retargeted ads will begin popping up now that I’ve visited the website and done other research.
Media and Publicity
Mirren was interviewed about how taking on a role in a gothic horror film is a bit unusual given her career to date, but as usual she made it sound like it made the most sense in the world. That feeling was reinforced by comments from Clarke who talked about how she approached the project like any other, requiring the same level of drama and emotion.
There were a few other interviews, especially with the two of them, but not a whole lot.
I’ll go back to what I said when discussing the trailer. I’m just not sure the appeal here is going to work. It’s too dramatic for horror fans and too horror-based for drama fans. That splitting of the difference could wind up meaning it fully resonates with a smaller group than hoped. There’s a real effort to bring the house to life as a whole other character, but even that falls flat because we keep being reminded of the spirits that supposedly live there, which deflates the tension a bit.
All that being said, it’s fun to see Mirren here playing outside her usual field. She never really gets a chance to fully chew the scenery, but she’s always great and so provides a reason to see the film in and of herself. It’s just too bad that once again we have a horror campaign that feels nails being pushed out from the inside and a creepy little kid sadly singing a lullaby are the best ways to make the case to the audience. Those tricks are a bit tired.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.