The Winchester Mystery House, a Victorian mansion located in San Jose, California, is a popular local tourist attraction for understandable reason. Construction began in 1884 and did not entirely subside until the death of its owner, Sarah Winchester, in 1922. Sarah's labyrinthine home, built following the passing of her rifle manufacturer husband William and infant daughter, was and remains a quirky architectural marvel, full of curious rooms, hidden passageways, staircases leading to dead ends, and well over 160 rooms in all. It now stands four stories, but prior to the 1906 earthquake it was nearly twice the size and stood a whopping seven floors. This is an optimally spooky place in which to set a film, but not the plodding, decidedly exploitative one "Winchester" has turned out to be.
The cast is far better than the material deserves. The eclectic, eternally refined Helen Mirren (2017's "The Fate of the Furious
") stars as Sarah Winchester, a woman whose tragic losses in life have left her broken and obsessed with the day-and-night building of a home in never-ending renovation. Jason Clarke (2015's "Everest
") portrays equally grieving widowed therapist Eric Price, hired to stay at the estate while he assesses Sarah's mental fitness to maintain control of her late husband's Winchester Repeating Arms Company. And Sarah Snook (2015's "Steve Jobs
") plays Sarah's niece Marion Marriott, dubious of Eric's arrival and increasingly frightened over a young son, Henry (Finn Scicluna O'Prey), preyed upon by forces she does not understand. Mirren, Clarke and Snook do what they can with patly defined characters who rarely ever feel as if they could exist beyond the scenes of writer-director Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig's (2017's "Jigsaw
") and co-scribe Tom Vaughan's screenplay.
Mirren, the star attraction, is particular ill-used, barely interacting with her onscreen loved ones or given the chance to shape her factual role into a three-dimensional figure. Mostly, she walks around in a black veil and speaks intensely about the not-quite-departed soulsall victims of the Winchester riflewhich she claims gravitate toward the mansion. Her motivations for housing these spirits may be out of guilt, but things get hazy when she continues building rooms for them even as they turn violent and start threatening Henry's life. As for Clarke's Eric, the central protagonist of the piece, his tortured addiction to opiumno doubt a way to numb the pain of losing his wifeis introduced in the first act and then abruptly dropped with nothing coming of it.
The emotional grace notes the Spierigs aim for more accurately strike like out-of-tune piano chords. In surer hands, Sarah's, Eric's and Marion's personal conflicts and arcs would be given the time to breathe and flourish. Instead, they are put through the pedestrian paces while always in service of the next relatively cheap jump scare. In a narrative where the setting is so blatantly haunted from frame onevastly exaggerated, it should be noted, from the real-life placethere is no room to build tension or stakes. Methodically crafted set-pieces of shiver-inducing tension are in desperately short supply, replaced by umpteenth scenes where decaying, corpse-like ghosts pop into frame but don't actually do much of anything.
"Winchester" is handsomely lensed by cinematographer Ben Nott (2012's "Tomorrow, When the War Began
"), its production design by Matthew Puttland is impressively detailed, and Wendy Cork's costumes are well-suited for a turn-of-the-twentieth-century period piece. The film itself, sadly, doesn't work for more than solitary moments at a time. The melodrama is ineffectual and unconvincing. The supernatural elements are familiar to the point of lethargy. The possession subplot is silly and unnecessary, and it doesn't help that young newcomer Finn Scicluna O'Prey plays Henry as creepy even when he's intended to be sympathetically cherubic. Only a sequence where Henry stalks his great-aunt with a rifle through a ramped stairway elicits any legitimate suspense.
The Winchester Mystery House is a fascinating setting, and its historyits actual historywould have been more than enough fodder to construct an enthralling feature around. By using it as a looser-than-loose jumping-off point for a far-fetched spectral show is to somehow demean the legacy and tragedy of its human subject. Tellingly, "Winchester" saves its most indelibly haunting moment for last, a grainy, black-and-white still image of the real and long-since-gone Sarah Winchester, forever frozen in eternal existence. A proper account of her complicated life and the lonesome, ornately one-of-a-kind house she left behind has yet to be told.