History lesson over and so to the film. Said to be the most haunted house in the world, the Winchester House sits on an isolated stretch of land that's about fifty miles outside of San Francisco on about 160 acres. Built by Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren starring in her first horror film in her illustrious forty+ year career) heiress to the Winchester fortune, it stands seven stories tall and contains some 160 rooms including forty bedrooms, two ballrooms as well as 47 fireplaces, over ten thousand panes of glass, seventeen chimneys, two basements and three elevators.
The Winchester company is fearful for Sarah's state of mind and her ability to run the company as a 51% shareholder who also inherited US$20M from her late husbands estate (a very tidy sum back in the late 19th Century). Sarah is in a state of self imposed grieving - for the loss of her husband some years earlier, and the loss of their young daughter previously. Having consulted a psychic, she set about building the mansion - a process which continues unabated 24/7 by a dedicated team of craftsmen round the clock, day in day out. To the casual outsider, it seems like a misplaced monument to a disturbed woman's madness. But Sarah is constructing a 'prison' for hundreds of vengeful ghosts and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with this Winchester. She believes that the house is haunted by the wayward spirits, anxious apparitions, and cursed by the ghosts of those killed by a Winchester firearm.
The Directors of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company engage Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess Sarah's state of mind, paying him his asking price and doubling it, and seeking a written report quickly. Doctor Price has his own demons to contend with - he too is grieving the loss of his wife, and has become reliant upon a drug that he self prescribes. He drinks a lot too, and when we first make his acquaintance he is 'entertaining' four prostitutes in his San Francisco home. He takes the assignment and upon arriving at the Winchester House is met by Sarah's relative Marion Marriott (Sarah Snook) who lives in the house too with her son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey) who at night is possessed by a mysterious entity and witnesses strange goings on in his bedroom.
Initially Marion is sceptical of Price, and reinforces the strict rules of the household which he must uphold as long as he is in residence, to which he cordially agrees. That first evening while preparing for dinner, Price is startled by a ghostly vision which he attributes to the hallucinogenic effects of the drug he is taking. At dinner, Price meets Sarah for the first time with Marion and Henry in attendance too, overseen by an army of servants waiting on. Later that night Price goes for an exploratory walk, coming across a stairway down to a basement, where he comes face to face with a ghost crawling menacingly up the stairs towards him. He scrambles from whence he came, and goes outside for a breath of fresh air, again dismissing the whole incident. He is met by several craftsmen all busily building away and spies Henry in a translike state standing on a ledge two or three stories up, and then topple over. Price runs to him and breaks the young lads fall, which is witnessed by both Sarah and Marion.
The next day in conversation, Sarah reveals that in a bookcase she has volumes and volumes of records of those persons killed by a Winchester rifle, and Price's name is amongst them. It comes to light that Eric was actually killed by a Winchester rifle and was dead for three minutes before being revived. The bullet was extracted from his chest, and he had the casing refilled and resealed and the inscription 'Together Forever' engraved on the side. He keeps the bullet with him at all times as a reminder, and as a connection to the past, adds Sarah. Sarah also states that numerous rooms in the house are boarded up and secured with thirteen nails to keep the spirits locked securely away, but there is a particularly violent and troubled spirit that has manifested itself that she wants to help move on.
Later the day after, Price and Marion talk about the ghosts that Sarah believes in. Marion does not subscribe to her point of view, but while they talk, Henry, armed with a Winchester rifle secured from a newly refurbished room exhibiting every Winchester rifle type ever sold, goes on the rampage with the intent of shooting Sarah dead. He comes pretty close too, but is stopped from doing so, having fired several bullets, by Price and Marion. The spirit that possessed Henry leaves him, and at this point Sarah realises how violent this particular entity can be. Sarah dismisses her staff and is determined to confront the spirit herself and rid her home of it.
As Eric is calling for a doctor to treat Henry, he is confronted by a Butler. Later in conversation with Sarah it transpires that the Butler is in fact one Benjamin Brock (Eamon Farren) a confederate soldier whose two brothers were killed in the Civil War by Winchester rifles. Brock was so traumatised by his loss that he entered the Winchester Offices armed with a Winchester rifle and proceeded to shoot dead all the staff working at that time, before the Police arrived and shot him dead. Brock's spirit had been possessing Henry, and the newly refurbished display room replicated the Offices where Brock was gunned down by Police after his massacre of the employees there.
While all this is going Marion has located Henry in the basement of the house where they are cornered by the spirits of Brock's two dead brothers. Price forces his way through the rubble of the house back into the display room where Sarah is located, and together they manage to trap the spirit of Brock in the room with them. Brock attempts to kill Sarah. The pair come to the realisation that Brock is afraid of the bullet that Price had retained, and furthermore this is what connects him to the spirits that he is now able to see. Price picks up the very rifle that Brock used in his massacre at the Winchester Offices, and loads his bullet into it. He takes aim, and fires, so banishing Brock from this world.
And so Price, Sarah, Marion and Henry are saved. Price later declares that Sarah is perfectly sane in his written report to the Winchester Board and therefore fit to retain control of her company. Upon leaving, Price and Sarah stand outside the house viewing the repair works already well under way to restore the home to its former glory, with the addition of still more rooms in which to help more wayward and lost spirits.
This is an interesting premise for a film, grounded, albeit loosely, in a turn of the century true story that promises so much, yet ultimately fails to deliver. The period is recreated reasonably faithfully, the films aesthetic looks convincing enough (apart from some questionable CGI shots but this is only a minor criticism), the performances from the three leads (Mirren, Clarke and Snook) are solid enough, and the dialogue is careful and considered throughout. But, despite a few jump scares this is a fairly standard by the numbers run 'o' the mill offering that provides little new that we haven't seen before in plenty of other similar haunted house movies. For a house offering a full labyrinth of rooms, corridors, hallways and staircases from which to truly imbue a story, we are offered a restricted view of only a small part of the mansion that is surely a missed opportunity to truly flesh out this tale of nether world entities. All this adds up to a film that urges to be taken seriously, but ultimately proves to be predictable, a little silly and tongue in cheek fun instead, and not particularly original.
-Steve, at Odeon Online-