By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) — There are many interesting things to know about the life of arms heiress Sarah Winchester (c. 1840-1922). For one, she was fabulously wealthy. For another, she believed she was cursed.
To stave off the effects of the latter condition, moreover, Sarah was apparently under the delusion that she must maintain constant construction on the San Jose, California, house in which she lived — something she proceeded to do for nearly four decades and only stopped doing because she died.
The architectural curiosity resulting from her mania, dubbed the Winchester Mystery House, has since become a popular tourist attraction. All very intriguing.
How, then, one wonders, can a horror movie riffing on these historical circumstances turn out to be such a bore — all the more so, given that the formidable Helen Mirren stars as Sarah? Yet such is the painful truth about “Winchester” (CBS Films), a dud if ever there was one.
Perhaps it’s the scattershot approach adopted by co-directors and brothers Michael and Peter Spierig. Seemingly in an effort to try a little bit of everything, they mash up the haunted house, angry ghost and possessed kid subgenres, all to no avail. There’s a lot going on but none of it works.
Witnessing all the mayhem is Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a man with a turbulent past of his own. Commissioned by the board of directors of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. to assess their majority shareholder’s state of mental health, Eric has become one of Sarah’s rare houseguests.
Of course, his initial outlook on the situation is one of resolute scientific skepticism. But, by the time he finds himself barricaded in an attic trying to protect Sarah from the rampaging specter of a Confederate soldier who has been dead for lo these 20 years, he seems to have changed his point of view.
Sarah’s claim about that curse, which also takes in her family — here represented by her niece (Sarah Snook) and young grandnephew (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) — now appears, to Eric at least, well-founded in eerie fact.
The script’s peaceable theme — the spirits bugging Sarah were all killed by Winchester guns, and she tries to calm them by communicating her sincere remorse — is certainly in keeping with Gospel values. Aspects of Eric’s lifestyle, by contrast, though only hinted at, are clearly contrary to Scriptural norms of behavior.
A troubled widower, he has developed a laudanum addiction and enjoys consorting with ladies of the evening. Precisely what he gets up to with the streetwalkers we see hanging around his house in one scene — either individually or collectively — is, thankfully, kept decently obscure.
Such potentially sordid details, however, together with some of the elements listed below, makes “Winchester” strictly grownup fare.
The film contains occult themes, gunplay and other stylized violence with little gore, drug use, implications of promiscuity and possible group sex involving prostitutes, a couple of profanities, a milder oath, and at least one crass term. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.