The actual story behind the Winchester Mystery House is an interesting one. After the deaths of her husband and daughter, Sarah Winchester became the majority shareholder in the lucrative Winchester Repeating Arms Company and moved into an unfinished farmhouse in Cali. She used her fortune to build a haphazard seven-story mansion that became famous for stairs that went nowhere, windows looking into other rooms and other architectural oddities.
Some believed that the construction, which would continue day and night for 38 years until Winchester’s death in 1922, was a hobby to help the widow and mother cope with her grief, while others maintained that she believed her family was haunted by the ghosts killed by Winchester firearms and that the house was built to contain their spirits. “Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built” looks to adapt the tale of the titular Mystery House and firearms heiress by focusing on the supposed family curse. What could have been a thought-provoking psychological horror story about the effects of grief is instead watered down into a boring, derivative flick fueled by thoughtless jump scares and a script that mistakes repetitive dialogue for thematic heft and character development.
This would have been disappointing if “Winchester” just had its premise going for it, but it’s fronted by Helen Mirren (“Collateral Beauty”) in the title role and Jason Clarke (“Mudbound”) playing the psychiatrist sent to evaluate her mental health, two incredibly talented performers who are given nothing to work with. There’s no relationship that builds between them, though the script pretends otherwise. Neither is at all engaging beyond the names behind them. Instead, they’re just points-of-view for the audience to experience the next jump scare.
To its credit, the script — co-written by the Spierig Brothers (“Jigsaw”), who also direct — tries to give Clarke’s Eric Price an arc, but his development is so muddy that it’s difficult to pin down exactly how we’re supposed to see him changing. Is he supposed to be recovering from the guilt of his wife’s death, as the third act implies? Is he overcoming his skepticism, as his dialogue, which consists almost entirely of him saying, “Fear is all in your head” to everyone — including himself — would support? There’s a play at combining the two ideas, but like the movie itself, it never resolves into anything coherent.
Meanwhile, Mirren, one of the best actresses of her generation, walks around acting like a medium on a third-tier reality TV show. “Oh,” she says at one point, her hands fluttering about as if swatting at invisible flies, “this spirit is so angry. It has a power we’ve not seen before.” The silliness of her performance is outmatched only by Eamon Farren (“Twin Peaks”) as Ben Block, another visitor to the Winchester house. Farren, a native Australian, affects a Southern accent so ludicrous it’s as if he injected molasses directly into his veins. Given his seeming omnipresence, he’s likely meant to be a foreboding presence, but with a drawl like the love child of Foghorn Leghorn and Colonel Sanders, it’s impossible to take him in any way seriously.
When horror is good, it possesses an ability to examine the human psyche that no other genre can lay claim to. The story behind Sarah Winchester and the house she built begs to be given this treatment, but the Spierig Brothers are apparently content with something lesser. Instead of genuine scares, we have deformed faces pop out while the music blasts. Instead of interesting mythology, we have a movie that wantonly violates its own rules. Instead of ingenuity, we have Jason Clarke shooting and killing a ghost.