Australian directors the Spierig brothers have a super-smart formula. Together, they make high-concept genre movies on the cheap in Australia, importing an American star (usually Ethan Hawke) and filling out the cast with eager soap stars. When it works, they hit the jackpot, as with 2014’s well-received Predestination. When it doesn’t, as with this disappointing haunted-house movie, they’re in trouble.
The film’s based on the true story of Sarah Winchester – heir to the US rifle-maker’s fortune, who, considering herself cursed, kept adding rooms to her mad-ass Californian mansion as penance. It’s a fascinating basis for a movie; but from the off, something’s amiss. Idents for Film Victoria and other Australian funding bodies precede the opening scenes, and don’t exactly help sell the idea that this most American of spook stories was shot in the US. (It wasn’t).
Quickly, we meet Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a widower with substance-abuse issues. He’s offered a lucrative assignment: go to the Winchester house on behalf of the company to assess whether Mrs. Winchester (Helen Mirren) is haunted or just unhinged. Here he meets her niece, Marion (Predestination’s Sarah Snook), and Marion’s son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), plus the house’s other residents. “I can’t fault the hospitality,” says Price during an awkward introductory dinner. “Oh, except the ghost in my room,” he should, but doesn’t add.
Clarke is a fine actor, but he’s an ill fit here, and you can’t help feeling that the role was again Ethan Hawke’s to turn down. Although Clarke and Snook pass muster, the rest of the cast have serious accent issues, while head builder Angus Sampson (Insidious) appears to have been dubbed. All this amid lots of exposition and some iffy writing. Price blames everything he sees on laudanum withdrawal, and to remember his dead wife, he has a bullet with “together forever” written on it. No prizes for guessing whether this will come in handy later…
For all their technical competence, the Spierig brothers don’t show great understanding of how ghost stories actually work. The house looks shiny and newly minted, and little is made of its confounding layout. Jump scares dissipate any mounting unease. And the spirits themselves are so disappointingly corporeal that Winchester manages to trap them in their rooms by nailing the doors shut. Surely the whole point of being a ghost is being able to wander where you please?
This is a genre where ambiguity is the chief weapon. But from the clunky subtitle (‘The House That Ghosts Built’) to an indifferent script, it’s clear subtlety has fled the building.