Most who are familiar with the weapons made by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company probably don’t know much about a dubious aspect of its history.

Unfortunately, they won’t glean much insight from Winchester, which shoves much of its true-life historical context to the background in favor of standard-issue haunted house fare.

The story is set in the early 20th century in San Francisco, where Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) is a widow grieving the death of her son and her husband, installing the reluctant Sarah as the head of the family’s eponymous rifle firm.

However, company executives question her mental stability, and hire a doctor (Jason Clarke) to assess her competency during a visit to the mysterious Winchester mansion, which Sarah claims is cursed and haunted by ghosts — thus necessitating her constant requests to refurbish and expand the structure.

Upon his arrival, Sarah’s niece (Sarah Snook) issues a warning: “You are to stay in the east wing. Aunt Sarah’s private quarters are off limits.” So you figure it’s only a matter of time until the good doctor heads that way, in the process confronting a past tragedy of his own.

Sibling directors Michael and Peter Spierig establish the requisite creepy atmosphere with creaky doors, flickering lights, and a barrage of bizarre sounds and visions, almost always accompanied by shrieking music cues.

Despite some scattered frights, the film relies mostly on technical gimmicks and jump scares rather than building genuine suspense.

With her esteemed body of work, Mirren is entitled to slum for a paycheck here as the loony matriarch. Meanwhile, Clarke’s character is intended to be the audience’s window into this strange world, except that plot mechanics dictate he exercises very little common sense.

The actual house remains open as a popular tourist attraction in San Jose known as the Winchester Mystery House, and the film should boost attendance there. The sprawling house likewise is the most intriguing character in the film, with its labyrinthine structure and abundant design quirks — what a shame it’s always so dark.

At any rate, Winchester is more tedious than terrifying, and it all builds up to a ridiculous finale that hardly goes out with guns a-blazing.


Rated PG-13, 99 minutes.