“Wide unclasp the table of their thoughts,” and “These same thoughts people this little world.” If you see Winchester, you learn early on that these phrases are etched into two beautiful stained glass windows in the Winchester mansion. But you may not know that they frame the house’s grand ballroom, that they are from two separate Shakespeare plays, and that nobody knows exactly what Sarah Winchester, the architect of the M.C. Escher-esque home, intended when she designed them that way.

Winchester is rife with rich and playful Easter eggs like these—from the remake of real photos of Sarah Winchester with Helen Mirren’s likeness, to cameos by the house’s most famous and most mysterious architectural features, such as the door to nowhere. But unfortunately, if you haven’t been to the house, the film is a flop, and even the great Mirren herself can’t save Winchester from its meandering plot or cheesy horror tropes.

The Winchester Mystery House, aka the Most Haunted House in America, is a super rad and seemingly random mansion that today rises from the earth like a massive tombstone amid the strip malls and highways of western San Jose. It has a fascinating history that is as American as pioneers, apple pie, and the release of intelligence committee reports. Too soon?

Ok, let’s peel back a few layers of this fascinating story. In the second half of the 19th century, Sarah Lockwood Winchester survives the tragic deaths of her one-month-old daughter, and later, her husband William, heir to half of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company fortune. As the legend goes, the grieving widow seeks the counsel of a medium in Boston. The medium tells Sarah that the spirits of all those who died at the hands of Winchester rifles will kill her unless she heads west with her new fortune and builds a house—forever. As long as the heiress keeps constructing, she will keep them at bay.

Sarah takes this reverse Field of Dreams premonition to heart, travels to California with her niece, buys a simple eight-room farmhouse, and hires carpenters to add room after room around the clock without any particular master plan. Under her direction, they build a sprawling mansion with staircases that lead into ceilings and windows with views of walls.

Meanwhile, Sarah finds solace in spiritualism—think of it as the yoga or the meditation of the time. She sleeps in different rooms to hide from evil spirits, insists that the number thirteen be incorporated into every design, and conducts nightly private séances in an otherwise forbidden room. Then the great earthquake of 1906 strikes in the middle of the night, jamming her bedroom’s door frame, and trapping her inside. Frightened but undeterred, Sarah seals off an entire section of the house and continues building elsewhere until her death in 1922. Ghostly sightings have been reported in the mansion ever since.

I mean really, could a horror film get better real-life bones? Could the women of #metootimesupnowsthetimeletsdothisalready get a wilder heroine than a strong-willed pioneer stubbornly wielding her fortune who is played by the Helen Mirren? But unfortunately, the film fails as a frightening flick because it insists on straying from this gripping history. Instead, it focuses on the senseless backstory of some fictitious doctor who is sent to assess Sarah’s sanity, and who has some awkwardly-crafted romance with Sarah’s niece. Meanwhile, the movie tosses jump scares, ghostly criminals, and possessed kids at the audience like a grumpy lunch lady slapping some slop on a tray.

But despite all of its failings, Winchester does a fine job of capturing the gas lamp-lit mood of one of the craziest buildings in the world. As someone who has toured the house, stepped on the creaky floorboards, peered through the Tiffany glass windows, felt the cool brush of an unexpected draft from a cellar stairway, and ducked my head to avoid the low doorways built for Sarah’s tiny four-foot-ten-inch frame, I can truly say that Winchester brings to life the impressive setting quite well. In some ways, the film turns the house itself into a sort of spiritual medium, connecting us to its troubled, driven creator herself.

But that’s also what is so disappointing about the film. How can it so perfectly capture the eerie, claustrophobic aura of the mansion, but at the same time slap together a few horror plot clichés and call it a scary movie? It’s like someone took an amazingly flaky, sweet, spicy apple pie and decorated it with sprinkles and frosting because they heard that’s what belongs on desserts. I guess that’s what we get for letting a couple of well-intended German-born Aussies tell such a boldly American horror story.

SpecialK Verdict: If you’ve visited the Winchester Mystery House, see Winchester, watch the impressive building come to life just as you imagined, and do your best to ignore the storyline. If you haven’t visited the Winchester Mystery House, you should skip the cinema and take a trip to San Jose instead. The spirits are waiting.

Winchester opens Friday, February 2.

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