Writer Ben Rolf, his wife Marian, and their 12-year-old son Davey tour a large, shabby, remote neo-classical 19th-century mansion to rent for the summer. The home's eccentric owners, elderly siblings Arnold and Rosalyn Allardyce, offer them a bargain price of $900 for the entire summer, with one odd request: Their elderly mother, who they claim is 85 but could pass for 60, will continue to live in her upstairs room, and the Rolfs are to provide her with meals during their stay. The siblings explain that the old woman is obsessed with privacy and will not interact with them, so meals are to be left outside her door. Marian eagerly accepts this task, having begun to succumb to the allure of the ornate house and its period decor.
The family arrives at the house at the beginning of summer along with Ben's elderly Aunt Elizabeth, a painter. Marian quickly becomes obsessed with caring for the home, and eventually wears the Victorian era garments she finds in Mrs. Allardyce's suite, while increasingly distancing herself from her family. Of particular interest to her is Mrs. Allardyce's sitting room, which contains a collection of framed portraits of people from different eras, presumably former occupants of the house, and a music box. Mrs. Allardyce's meals go mostly untouched, according to Marian, who expresses concern. Various unusual circumstances occur during the summer: After Davey falls and hurts his knee playing in the garden, a dead plant starts to grow again; Ben cuts his hand on a champagne bottle, and a dead light bulb in the kitchen storeroom is mysteriously repaired; while playing in the pool, Ben turns violent and almost drowns Davey; a gas heater in Davey's bedroom turns itself on and the windows and door lock shut; Ben is haunted by a dream and a waking vision of an eerie, malevolently grinning hearse driver whom Ben first saw, or thought he saw, at his mother's funeral many years earlier. With each "accident," the house further restores itself.
Initially unknown to her family, Marian is becoming possessed by the spirit of the house. When Aunt Elizabeth suddenly becomes ill and dies, Marian does not attend the funeral. She steps into the previously barren conservatory to discover the plants have revived and bloomed. Ben and Davey return to the house after the funeral. Ben confronts Marian, who retreats to Mrs. Allardyce's sitting room. Ben angrily confronts her about what her obsession with the house is doing to their family. When she denies it, he reveals his intention to leave the next day, "with or without you".
Ben sleeps in an armchair in his son's room but awakens to a commotion outside. Looking out the window, he sees that old shingles and siding are falling away, replaced by new ones as the house rejuvenates itself. He attempts to escape with his son, but a tree blocks the road. When Marian drives them back to the house, Ben accuses her of being a part of what is going on, then sees her as the chauffeur, and becomes catatonic. The next day, while Davey is swimming and a still catatonic Ben is watching him, the placid pool water turns churns into vicious waves, pulling the boy under as Ben is unable to move. Only Marian has the power to save her son. She dives in and rescues him, the incident awakening Ben out of his catatonic state. Marian agrees that it's time to leave.
As Ben readies his family to leave, Marian insists on going back inside to tell Mrs. Allardyce they are leaving and give her their phone number. When Marian fails to return to the car, Ben goes inside to find her, but cannot. Ben decides to confront Mrs. Allardyce, whom he has never seen. He is horrified when he discovers that his wife has now become the old woman in the attic. Ben is thrown from an attic window, landing on the windshield of his car. In shock, Davey runs toward the house and is killed when one of the chimneys falls on him.
With the house and grounds now fully rejuvenated, the Allardyce siblings reappear and are heard marveling at the restored beauty of their home and rejoicing over the return of their "mother". The photo collection now includes photos of Ben, Davey and Aunt Elizabeth, the latest victims.
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