It was called a repeater. The kind of rifle which made the Winchester family its fortune, through the company, Winchester Repeating Arms, founded in 1866 by Oliver Winchester. When Oliver’s son William Wirt Winchester succumbed to tuberculosis in 1881, William left behind a widow, Sarah, who inherited the company and its amassed wealth. According to legend, however, Sarah came to believe that she had also inherited the Winchester family curse, and would forever be haunted by the unrestful spirits of all who had been killed by a Winchester repeater – and so she spent the rest of her life trying to stave off the ghosts’ anger by constantly building and extending a mansion in San Jose, California. The so-called Winchester Mystery House, with its maze-like passageways and stairways to nowhere, remains to this day a tourist attraction and a supposedly haunted house. It is also one of America’s grandest follies.
All this is mostly true (although some of it is based on rumour and tabloid myth) – and it offers solid foundations for a period horror story. Australian genre directors the Spierig Brothers (Undead, Daybreakers, Predestination) have stepped to the mark with their own filmic folly, a multi-stor(e)y ghost flick in which washed-up, laudanum-chugging physician Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is hired by company lawyers in 1906 to establish that construction-obsessed Sarah (Helen Mirren) is of unsound mind, only for the doctor to start wondering if maybe there really are ghosts here. Eric, after all, has himself previously been on the wrong end of a Winchester rifle, and there is a special room in Sarah’s house for his own personal trauma.
“Déjà vu,” says Eric, peering through the window of a boarded-up garden conservatory. We do not, at this point, know what it is in his sight that he recognises – but the point is that the Winchester House is a place built on more than one kind of ‘repeating’, as moments of past violence are revisited, restaged and rehoused, eventually, hopefully, to be resolved. In a manner reminiscent of Darren Lynn Bousman’s self-deconstructive horror Abattoir (2016), everything here happens to the accompanying sound of hammering and sawing, as the house is under round-the-clock construction to accommodate its many returning guests. Its structure reflects that of the film – a creaky accumulation of tropes from all manner of haunted house movies, stitched together into an impressive if ungainly edifice.
What is most striking about Winchester is its openly negative stance on the long, recurring history of America’s weapons trade, and of those who fall victim to its smoking barrels. In one sequence – set just after the Civil War – a disgruntled man whose two younger, Confederate brothers had been killed by Winchester rifles walks into the newly founded Winchester Repeating Arms Company office and randomly shoots dead everybody working there. This flashback, now being reenacted in Sarah Winchester’s home, is reechoing the horrors not just of the past, but also of the future – for the scenario of a man going postal and carrying out a deadly shooting spree is all too familiar in present-day America. Accordingly, Winchester is making a statement about the history that America is doomed to replay until it finally atones and makes its peace with the past and with its commerce in bullets. This is, given the intransigence of today’s gun lobby and a seemingly endless barrage of firearms incidents, a bold and timely message – even if its impact is somewhat undone by a climax which requires yet more discharging of weapons against a revenant whose anger was originally triggered by similar actions. Perhaps, though, that is just the film’s way of suggesting that the cycle of violence, far from simply ending with the roll of the final credits, will always be a repeater – and a folly.
© Anton Bitel