A real-life haunted house is the setting for this historical horror with a raft of cool ideas that never quite come together to create a cohesively chilling whole.
In San Jose, California in 1906, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), widow to firearms magnate William, continually expands the sprawling mansion in which she lives with her daughter-in-law Marion (Sarah Snook) and grandson Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey). Sarah is convinced the place is haunted by the spirits of those who died via the guns produced by her husband's business, over which she maintains a controlling interest.
This worries the company's management, so they hire a doctor, Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess her mental stability. Price, a laudanum addict struggling to get over the death of his wife, doesn't believe in ghosts, but the Winchester mansion will soon challenge those convictions.
With staircases that lead to closed ceilings and doors that open into nothing, the (still-standing) Winchester mansion is a location well-suited to cinematic horror, and the film does a decent job of exploiting its off-kilter qualities. Clarke makes for an appealing compromised protagonist and Mirren cuts a particularly ghostly figure, permanently adorned in a black mourner's shawl.
But although the film starts out valiantly attempting to subvert traditional haunted house tropes, it ultimately falls back on overly familiar techniques – rattling doors, spectres appearing in mirrors and cheap jump scares straight out of a fairground ride.
The notion of gun victims haunting the manufacturer of the weapons that killed them is lent unexpected weight by recent events, but as much as the film tries to wring dramatic heft out of this dynamic, helped along by a game, predominantly Aussie cast, Winchester struggles to make any kind of lasting impression.
Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke
Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
M (Supernatural themes & violence)
Plenty of jumps, never truly scary.