This hor­ror movie is based on a true story. Sort of.

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - MOVIES - BY ROBERT ITO NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SER­VICE

The Winch­ester Mys­tery House in San Jose, Calif., is in­cred­i­bly whim­si­cal or in­tensely eerie, de­pend­ing on how you view such things, with stairs lead­ing to the ceil­ing and doors that open to nowhere.

The grand es­tate was the home of Sarah Winch­ester, heiress to the Winch­ester Re­peat­ing Arms for­tune, who, ac­cord­ing to leg­end, had work­ers cease­lessly la­bor­ing on the house for decades, from 1884 un­til her death in 1922. She un­der­took the project at the be­hest of a New Eng­land seer to de­lay her own demise, one ver­sion of the story goes, or to calm the spir­its of the thou­sands of souls killed through­out the ages by Winch­ester ri­fles, as another ver­sion has it.

The tale has all the mak­ings of a good hor­ror flick: a mys­te­ri­ous medium; a weird, pos­si­bly haunted house; a reclu­sive heiress who may or may not have been in­sane; ghosts. Best of all, the story is true — or is it?

In “Winch­ester,” which opens Fri­day, di­rec­tors Peter and Michael Spierig (“Pre­des­ti­na­tion,” “Jig­saw”) have taken the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia tale at its spooky word, fill­ing the man­sion with lev­i­tat­ing ri­fles, rock­ing chairs that move by them­selves, and the specters of an army of long-dead war veter­ans and mur­der vic­tims. Then there’s He­len Mir­ren, dressed head to toe in mourn­ing black, as the mys­te­ri­ous Winch­ester. Cue the jump scare.

Stu­dio mar­keters are play­ing up the “true story” an­gle on trail­ers and posters and news re­leases, hop­ing to make the al­ready scary story even more so. But the stu­dio also added the la­bel be­cause it couldn’t as­sume that peo­ple out­side North­ern Cal­i­for­nia would even have heard of Sarah Winch­ester and her house.

“Winch­ester” is the lat­est in a grand line of hor­ror films to trade on such sup­posed ve­rac­ity. “Based on a true story,” the trail­ers to these films trum­pet, or “in­spired by ac­tual events.” The 1979 “The Ami­tyville Hor­ror” was based on a sup­posed haunt­ing from 1975 (“You will be­lieve,” the trailer in­toned). The macabre ex­ploits of Ed Gein, the Wis­con­sin mur­derer who fash­ioned fur­ni­ture and cloth­ing out of hu­man body parts, in­spired films from “Psy­cho” to “The Texas Chain Saw Mas­sacre” (“What hap­pened is true,” one film poster read) to “The Si­lence of the Lambs.”

“If you can es­tab­lish that there’s a true story, or that there are fac­tual el­e­ments be­ing wo­ven into the story, then you’ve taken a big step in in­duc­ing a creepy mood in your au­di­ence,” said Stephen Prince, a cin­ema stud­ies pro­fes­sor at Vir­ginia Tech and ed­i­tor of “The Hor­ror Film,” a col­lec­tion of es­says about the genre.

But how true to life can a hor­ror film be, par­tic­u­larly ones, like “Winch­ester,” that are filled with spir­its and ap­pari­tions? And who would be­lieve these claims in the first place?

“The au­di­ence for hor­ror films is a very self-se­lected au­di­ence, in a way that’s not true for a lot of other gen­res,” Prince said. “Peo­ple who go to these films are ready to be­lieve.”

In­ter­est­ingly enough, the “true story” of Sarah Winch­ester, the one that keeps crowds flock­ing to the San Jose tourist at­trac­tion, was in doubt long be­fore the Spierig broth­ers had their go at it. Sure, there was a real Sarah Winch­ester, and she did build a house in San Jose, but much of what peo­ple think they know about the woman and her house in­volves spook sto­ries cooked up by jour­nal­ists of her day, said Winch­ester bi­og­ra­pher Mary Jo Ig­noffo, au­thor of “Cap­tive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winch­ester, Heiress to the Ri­fle For­tune.”

The stairs to the ceil­ing and the doors that lead nowhere? The re­sult of earth­quake dam­age left un­re­paired af­ter the 1906 San Fran­cisco earth­quake. All those rooms? A re­flec­tion of Winch­ester’s in­ter­est in ar­chi­tec­ture and in­te­rior de­sign — she came from a long line of wood­work­ers — not her be­lief in spir­i­tu­al­ists or the su­per­nat­u­ral.

Her sup­posed “gun guilt”?

“There’s no ev­i­dence for that,” Ig­noffo said. “No­body felt guilty about guns at the turn of the 20th cen­tury. Ev­ery­body used them and needed them.”

“The f u nda­men­tal lie is that the build­ing of the house went on 24/7,” Ig­noffo con­tin­ued. “She didn’t even live in the house for the last 15 years of her life. ”

None of which will lessen a viewer’s en­joy­ment of the film — nor should it, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to hor­ror movies.

“I think with hor­ror, ‘ based on a true story’ is much more l oosely ap­plied,” said Jonathan Vankin, au­thor of “Based on a True Story: Fact and Fan­tasy in 100 Fa­vorite Movies.”

And with hor­ror films about ghosts and para­nor­mal sight­ings, you’re of­ten get­ting what peo­ple say they saw, am­pli­fied by all the ap­pro­pri­ate spe­cial ef­fects. “So there are re­ally two lev­els of re­al­ity there,” he said. “It be­comes very meta. So yes, it’s a ‘ true story,’ but maybe one with an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor.”

Even so, the film­mak­ers read all they could about the house and its owner, con­sulted his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments and pe­riod pho­to­graphs, and vis­ited the home five times. ( While ex­te­rior shots were filmed in San Jose, much of the film was made on a set in Aus­tralia, where the di­rec­tors are based.) Among the com­pletely true el­e­ments in­cluded in the film are the home’s weird switch­back stair­case and the very un­spooky rea­son for it. Winch­ester had rheuma­toid arthri­tis, and the low­stepped stairs func­tioned as some­thing of a ramp.

While the film and the bi­og­ra­phy couldn’t be less alike, both reach sim­i­lar con­clu­sions about Winch­ester: She was con­sid­er­ably more heroic, and con­sid­er­ably less nuts, than she has some­times been painted. In Ig­noffo’s book, Winch­ester is a savvy busi­ness­woman; a beloved em­ployer; and a gen­er­ous sis­ter, aunt and phi­lan­thropist. In “Winch­ester,” she’s a tough hero­ine out to pro­tect her fam­ily and home from evil spir­its and greedy com­pany ex­ec­u­tives alike.

If the film of­ten strays from the truth for the sake of a good scare — for ex­am­ple, there’s no record that Winch­ester was ever at­tacked by a boy pos­sessed by the ghost of a mur­der­ous Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier — that’s fine with its cre­ators. “Ul­ti­mately you’re not mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary,” Michael Spierig said. “You’re mak­ing a piece of en­ter­tain­ment.”


Ja­son Clarke, left, and He­len Mir­ren in “Winch­ester.”

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