Gun violence continues to rise around the country, and just today a 12-year-old girl made national headlines when she was charged with negligence after accidentally firing a gun she brought to her school and leaving four children wounded. That same day, Winchester began showing in theaters around the country. The film — about a house haunted by the spirits of those taken at the hands of Winchester rifles — was more than just a thrilling horror film, but a truly terrifying piece of cinema.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Winchester was its fine cinematography. Despite the film’s modest budget of $3.5 million, Winchester boasts crisp shots, full of life and color when necessary, and rich blacks that fill the chaotic void that ensnares the Winchester house when the plot gets going. Sets are richly and lavishly decorated with a meticulous attention to detail. The film gets more than its money’s worth.
Can a film fit the horror genre these days without jump scares? Most are done cheaply and to little effect other than to cause fright, but that’s surprisingly not the case in Winchester. Having seen numerous horror films in theaters, I’ve grown accustomed to keeping track of the cheap jump scares that most horror films these days employ, but I only could find one in Winchester as the main character jumps when passing by someone else in the house at night. The other frights that occurred seemed natural and not of the result of a swell in the film’s score. Granted, the typical elements of a jump scare were there — but Winchester used its frights to further the film’s plot, like when a toy raced out from under a boy’s bed in the night, drawing his attention downstairs.
Speaking of Winchester’s plot, the film’s script does a fantastic job of peppering in clues that lead up to the story’s climax. During the beginning, there is a lull in frights, but Winchester is still working diligently to set them up, and when the final confrontation occurs, the tension rises thanks to these less drama-filled scenes that set the stage.
The film’s cast is impeccable. Jason Clarke plays the doctor Eric Price who doesn’t know what he bargained for when he is sent to the Winchester mansion to evaluate the mental state of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren.) It goes without saying that an actor as seasoned as Mirren has it in the bag when it comes to her performance as the beleaguered lady of the house, one who keeps building onto her mansion in the hopes of appeasing the ghosts who haunt it. Sarah’s dedication to bringing peace and protecting her family feels natural, especially so considering her personal feelings of grief that it was her family’s rifles that killed the people in the first place.
Winchester thrives on the thrills it crafts, but the film’s more subtle message adds depth. Sarah Winchester is haunted by the actions of others, and she wants nothing more than for guns like those her family created to be destroyed. With the film being inspired by true events, and further counts of gun violence making headlines on the day the film gets its release, Winchester is unsettling in more ways than one. It packs a punch with its message of the impact of gun deaths, making the finely crafted terror that unfolds on screen the cherry on top.