If you visit the Winchester Mystery House, the most chilling thing about the tour is that your teenage guide has memorized her hour-long patter down to the comma and can speed up her delivery when necessary to reconnect with the party in front of you.
The Australian directing brothers Spierig attempt to add more chills in “Winchester,” their origin story about the rambling estate, set in the Bay Area in the notable year of 1906. The credit sequence states that the vast pile of bricks is “One of the most haunted mansions in North America,” though that claim does not reference a reputable source on the supernatural.
The untrained architect of the palace is Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), heiress to the arms maker fortune and possessor of a guilty conscience — she believes she is cursed, haunted by the shadows of all the people killed by the guns manufactured by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The house is under constant construction, with workers sawing and hammering 24/7 — the company of carpenters is a comfort when you’re being chased around by a ghost in the wee hours.
Sarah tries to control the wraiths by trapping them in new rooms being fitted daily — just think of how big the house would have gotten had she accounted for WWI! — as such, every closed door rattles and drafts rustle the curtains even when the windows are closed.
The ever-expanding abode is a great expense to the shareholders of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and, to get a tourniquet on the outlay, they send a representative to California to find a doctor who will declare Sarah unfit to be a majority owner. Enter Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who pauses a laudanum-fueled ménage à trois to hear out the gentleman’s offer. Six hundred bucks seems a little light for malpractice but, as an inveterate drug addict mourning a dead wife in the arms of the be-scarfed harlotry of San Francisco, his negotiating powers are not at their peak.
Dr. Price spouts claims like, “Fear only exists in your mind,” but is prone to visions of dripping blood before he even gets to the Winchester house to make his psychological assessment. He doesn’t have an easy go. In addition to Sarah, residents include her niece Marian (Sarah Snook) and grand-nephew Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) a real devil-spawn-looking ginger who sleepwalks under the possession of a ghost. The help at the house is a couple cadaverous butlers (played by Bruce Spence and Eamon Farren).
With these parameters established, the film resolves to about 40 minutes of plot and an hour of characters creeping slowly down hallways before timorously trying a doorknob. Many will watch the film in a permanent cringe, waiting for a blast of music and the jump cut to a screaming phantom. “Winchester” scares you in the cheapest way, failing to generate any goosebumps but relying on fatiguing, aggro-editing.
The real-life Winchester Mystery House was built with the illogic of a nightmare but the set is not vast enough to reflect this — the same passages are walked again and again so we lack spatial knowledge of the full extent of the maze.
The film’s position is that the only way to stop a ghost toting a rifle is a human blasting a shotgun at the specter… It’s hard to know when you’ve hit one. Dr. Price keeps a bullet pulled out of him as a charm, and that idea is capitalized upon by the ghouls running the gift shop of the tourist trap where, on your way out to the car, you can purchase a Winchester rifle bullet attached to a key ring.
‘Winchester’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG-13. Running time 1:39. Visit cinemawest.com.