At one point in the Winchester Mystery House’s history the building reached the lofty peaks of seven floors high. That was before the Great San Francisco earthquake hit in 1906 and brought some of them tumbling down. The Spierig brothers open their film in the same year before the quake hit and where rumblings of destruction and fear wandered the corridors of Sarah Winchester’s home in San Jose, California. The house still stands today, all 160 rooms of it, and is now a major tourist attraction.
This supernatural horror is based on the true story of Sarah Winchester, played by Dame Helen Mirren, who inherited a large share of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company from her husband. Sarah was convinced she was haunted by the ghosts of those killed by their rifles and needed to continue building the house to appease these spirits. After the death of her husband and baby daughter, Sarah visited a medium who told her to move away from New England and purchase a new property which became the titular house. The medium also suggested that the victims wanted to take vengeance on the Winchester clan, and the film runs with the idea that the family is cursed, and evil spirits are out for their blood.
Psychiatrist and sceptic, Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is sent to the house by the board of the company to investigate Sarah’s sanity. On arriving he meets Sarah’s niece, played by Sarah Snook who has recently moved in after the sudden death of her husband. She is joined by her son, Henry (played by a ghostly pale, red-headed Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), who sleepwalks round the house to dangerous ends. But wait, that’s not all, because Dr. Price is addicted to drugs and suffering from PTSD and grief after the passing of his wife.
After the Spierig’s get their characters’ backstories out of the way with Dr. Price’s introductory scene a tame, drug fuelled orgy as a way to show how messed up he is, it moves to lots of discussion about broken souls between Mirren, Clarke and Snook. Angus Sampson turns up as an architect with very little to say, and Eamon Farren is fantastically well cast in the role of a creepy butler.
Little time is spent on conjuring up a tense atmosphere or a feeling of melancholy in the house before the lousy jump scares begin. The filmmakers seem more focused on constructing a tacky story revolving around the gun fire of the American Civil War, and the startling history of violence and its aftermath in the country. The ghosts of slaves and Native Americans appear briefly but these themes are sloppily handled as too much else is going on. References to the civil war epic, Gone With The Wind, are also thrown in via Henry singing ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ in an eerie way. At times it feels like the film is directly lifting from Insidious in the way it approaches its horror scare tactics, but there’s little to no element of surprise.
That’s not to say the filmmakers haven’t done their research, there are a lot of rules in the film, that relay neat personal details about Sarah including the fact that she was obsessed with the number thirteen. To trap a ghost in one of her oddly designed rooms you have to board it up with thirteen nails – which would have been enough to allude to her obsession, but then you also have Mirren clumsily counting thirteen clothes hooks just to make sure you understand. The laboured script and nonsense denouement seems to suggest violence should be quashed with more violence with the film ending on a disappointingly obvious whimper.