Gun-house, not fun-house.
The House of Haunted Hill. The Shining. Poltergeist. The Amityville Horror. The Conjuring. The haunted house is perhaps the staple trope of the whole horror genre. The things that go bump in the night are, as a rule, scarier when they’re living – or not living – in your home, and in Winchester, the Spierig Brothers have given themselves some prime real estate to play with.
Eric Price (Jason Clarke; smirking and self-loathing) is a grief-stricken psychiatrist, living in San Francisco circa 1906. Seemingly well-respected, despite his dependency on laudanum and penchant for prostitutes, he’s hired by the Winchester Repeating Company. They’re implicitly to have Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren; dry, witty, canny), heir to the Winchester fortune and their chief stakeholder, declared psychologically unsound. As such, Eric is dispatched to her home in San Jose to perform an evaluation.
And what a home!
The Winchester Mystery House, as it is now known, is indeed an ever-changing mystery box of rooms and architectural oddities, and Sarah herself is certainly something of an eccentric; wandering the halls of the mansion dressed like a Woman In Black cosplayer. She believes she has been cursed by the victims of Winchester firearms in profiting from their deaths and so must forever build in order to pacify their restless spirits.
That much is near enough a matter of historical record, though the Spierig’s may have taken a few liberties as to what this means in practical terms: namely ghosts; vengeful ones. What this means in cinematic terms are jump scares, disfigured ghouls, and a bit of cringe-y, ooh-no-don’t-do-that tension, but it runs out of ammo long before the denouement.
There are a couple of decent, if foreseeable, twists, a ginger moppet singing creepy parlour tunes, but Winchester crucially overlooks – sorry, not sorry – the innate real-life weirdness of its setting and the opportunities that offers. Instead it’s mostly happy to leave Sarah Snook – who gave what should have been a star-making performance in the Spierig’s Predestination back in 2015 – nobly wandering the corridors.
Clarke brings a welcome touch of Vincent Price to the self-proclaimed rationalist forced to confront the supernatural and Mirren acquits herself well as the composed madam medium, but this – and the occasional touch of tintype blurring to the edges of the frame – isn’t enough to excuse my reservations (or warrant making your own).