Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, ringmasters of the eighth instalment of the Saw franchise, Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built fleshes out the spooky mythology of a curious architectural landmark in San Jose, California.
The Winchester Mystery House is a popular tourist attraction, which survived the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and proudly claims to be one of America’s most haunted residences.
The wicked whispers that swirl around the grand Victorian property are far more tantalising than anything the Spierig brothers summon from the murky depths of their imaginations.
Doors shake violently, a whispering wind blows out a flickering flame, strange noises emanate from the dank confines of a basement, and a cherubic boy is possessed by a malevolent spirit that causes his voice to drop two octaves.
Dame Helen Mirren is squandered as the grieving widow at the centre of the escalating supernatural madness.
Draped in funereal garb from the moment she glides into view, the mercurial Oscar winner works tirelessly to sell us clumsy dialogue and predictable plot twists that will seem desperately outdated to scare-savvy modern audiences.
Dame Helen plays Sarah Winchester, who inherits a 20 million US dollar fortune and the controlling stake in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company following the death of her husband in March 1881.
With great power comes a terrible responsibility.
Sarah believes that profiting from death follows her like a shadow and she will be haunted to the grave by the ghosts of men, women and children shot dead with Winchester rifles.
She uses her fortune to construct a vast mansion to contain vengeful spectres that wish her harm.
In April 1906, brilliant medic Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who habitually abuses laudanum to numb the pain of losing his wife (Laura Brent), is summoned to “the house of never-ending construction” to assess Sarah’s mental capacity.
Other shareholders want Sarah declared unfit to preside over the munitions empire and are willing to pay 600 US dollars for an “appropriate assessment”.
Arriving at the house, Eric encounters construction foreman John Hansen (Angus Sampson), a dizzying array of household staff including butler Thomas (Eamon Farren), and the two other permanent residents: Sarah’s niece Marion (Sarah Snook) and her young son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey).
As night falls, a bell tolls and something evil stirs.
Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built shares a few stylistic similarities to The Woman In Black but the only compelling darkness here is Dame Helen’s sombre attire.
We are in achingly familiar territory and a linear script, co-written by Tom Vaughan, groans almost as loudly as the mansion’s polished floorboards.
The Spierigs are content to trade in cheap shocks to convince us to jump out of seats in between yawns and impatient glances at watches.
In 99 minutes, I shuddered once. A disappointingly poor investment.