For the most part, “Winchester” fires blanks.
Sure, it’s based on a true story about the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune but it’s not quirky – or detailed – enough to make us believe its very odd premise.
Helen Mirren (who should have known better) plays Sarah Winchester, a woman filled with remorse over all those who’ve died as a result of her company’s product. To somehow release the dead persons’ spirits, she builds a seven-story house that includes replicas of the rooms in which they died.
Members of her board of directors think she’s crazy (and, come on, wouldn’t you?), so they hire a psychiatrist (Jason Clarke) to do an evaluation and come to the same conclusion. He, though, has his own demons, including a drug addiction and a death he hasn’t gotten past.
Winchester invites him into her home and, sure enough, he hears and sees things that make him believe it could be haunted.
Mirren has a creepy relative, a lot of odd employees and architecture that practically invites ghosts.
A staircase (designed to help alleviate arthritis pains) is ripe for a number of games. Sure enough, directors Michael and Peter Spierig shake cupboards, blink lights and pound on doors to make us think this is something other than shoddy construction.
Clarke goes into panic mode, finds his own dark side and believes a butler in the house looks a lot like someone he saw in a newspaper article.
You can imagine where this is headed, but first that creepy kid has to do something, Mirren has to have a moment of real terror and then the walls start tumbling down.
The Spierig Brothers have moments that look good, but most of the set is obviously constructed for quick use and plenty of the shots are right out of Film School 101.
Mirren spends so much time behind a veil you wonder if her stunt double didn’t do most of the work. She approaches the role with dignity. But, really, this is the kind of junk Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were forced to do when they were her age.
She obviously believed it was going to be more biographical than it is. Glimpses of “The Omen,” “The Exorcist” and plenty of other, better horror films are here. They just don’t add up to a new whole.
While Clarke has been good in other films, he’s serviceable here. Likewise many of the other actors who have creepy looks, not mad skills.
A good story was possible from Sarah Winchester’s life. Her home is a tourist attraction; many of the myths surrounding it linger.
But this is boilerplate horror, without many unique surprises. If there’s any takeaway, it’s that staircase.
Architects might want to work it into their designs.