Winchester provides the three ingredients of a basically effective haunted house movie. First and foremost, it provides the house, and this particular one, which really exists and has become renowned for how haunted it apparently is, is a doozy: the Winchester Mystery House of San Jose, California. "Grand" is too moderate a word for the place, as here it is being constantly built and rebuilt by a squad of construction workers earning, perhaps, weeks of overtime in the process. The production designers have had a field day with building replicas of its tens upon dozens of rooms, from living quarters to libraries to bedrooms to crawl spaces.
Second, it provides the reason the house is haunted: A Confederate Army colonel, having lost his brothers in the Civil War, sought revenge upon the company who provided the eponymous guns to Union soldiers, committing mass murder at its headquarters before being shot down by the police himself. The screenplay by Tom Vaughn and directors Michael and Peter Spierig (credited as "the Spierig Brothers") complicate the existence of this spirit by tacking on a lot of other ones in the process. Those won't be revealed in this review because, with the exception of one ghost (whose introduction is a woeful bit of bald manipulation), there really isn't anything to reveal.
Third, it provides the residents of the house - Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), who moved into the mansion after the deaths of her husband and daughter and the inheritance of half the Winchester Repeating Arms company, alongside her niece Marian (Sarah Snook) and grandnephew Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey) - and the unknown variable in the form of a visitor. Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), whose tragic past and laudanum addiction have not precluded him from this particular job, is sent to assess Sarah's mental stability as a shareholder.
There isn't much in terms of a plot that isn't all but entirely dismissed by the climax, but the atmosphere holds one's attention for so long that that climax, in which this spirit becomes too literal in its threat upon the household, seems to have been randomly placed into this movie from an alternate reality. The performances are serviceable enough, with Clarke and Mirren conveying sadness that reflects off each other and Snook going just enough beyond the "worried mom" routine that a real character peeks through.
Mostly, though, the basic ingredients are never quite mixed together to achieve something greater than parts aspiring to be a whole. The grandeur of the house is eventually reduced to a few key rooms in which things of vaguely defined importance occur. The potential for fright is eventually reduced to a lot of atmosphere with nowhere of note to take it. The drama surrounding the characters, such as the doctor's attempt to push past his demons, is eventually reduced to a lot of hokey melodrama and dei ex machina. Even the performances become less effective as the sillier parts of the movie (such as when a bullet hits a ghost) take shape. Winchester starts surprisingly strong, only to meet its inevitable slide toward inconsequence.
Jason Clarke (Dr. Eric Price), Helen Mirren (Sarah Winchester), Sarah Snook (Marian Winchester), Angus Sampson (John), Finn Scicluna-O'Prey (Henry), Eamon Farren (Block), Laura Brent (Ruby), Tyler Coppin (Arthur Gates).
Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig and written by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig, and Tom Vaughn.
Rated PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, drug content, sexual material, thematic elements).
Released on February 2, 2018.