Based on a true story — or as the movies guardedly put it these days, “inspired by true events” — “Winchester” hurls Dame Helen Mirren into her first horror movie.
With 129 acting credits listed to her name on IMDb, it’s amazing to find Mirren hasn’t really done horror before, although John Boorman’s “Excalibur” was a bit scary, Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” was baroque, and “Red 2” and “Collateral Beauty” are a couple of shockers.
Here, in an Australian-backed enterprise by the Spierig Brothers (“Daybreakers,” “Jigsaw”), the Oscar winner plays Sarah Winchester, a spinster all in black lace, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune who has now (it’s 1906) ensconced herself away in a big, ever-expanding house which is in a continual state of build and repair, all day and night.
Into this eccentric abode is sent San Francisco psychiatrist Eric Price, played by the potato-esque Jason Clarke. He’s been commissioned to assess Ms. Winchester’s mental state as the board of the rifle company seeks to wrest back control. Price’s recreational addiction to laudanum begins to seem like a very bad idea when he starts seeing ghosts in the mirror, every glance underlined by loud jump-scare music (composed by Peter Spierig), every doorway concealing a possible “Boo!” moment. Yes, even the door to the cellar; no cliché left unturned in this one.
Although Price attempts to take control, he’s no match for Sarah Winchester, certainly not the way she’s played by Mirren, who lifts back her veil to reveal her grimmest game face, one that reads: Right, let’s get this nonsense over with as quickly as we can, shall we?
Her character, though, is caught in an alarming limbo, communing with the dead spirits gunned down by her company’s great legacy, the repeating rifle, the weapon which won the Wild West. Even corporate diversification into roller-skate production isn’t without a ghostly victim or two.
Ms. Winchester’s spirit connection goes further: We discover that it’s the ghosts who are possessing her at night and “guiding” her to re-construct the rooms in which they were shot, so she’s forever adding to her house, drawing up new plans and ripping down extensions until the place becomes an Escher-like maze of stairways going nowhere, trap doors and dead ends. This “house that spirits built” is still around, known as America’s most haunted house, and apparently open for tourist visits, in San Jose (if you know the way, of course).
Mirren does her best to bring some gravitas to the role, although I’m not sure that’s what it needed. She may have been the Queen, but she’s no scream queen. Nor does she give it the whole Miss Havisham scary-spinster camp. It needed a bit more Bette Davis, a bit of sarcasm. Mirren just looks like she hates being here.
Even Mirren’s lifeless Winchester is enough to give the opiated Dr. Price (and the lumpen Clarke) the runaround, while her young nephew Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) — staying in the house with his mother (Sarah Snook, “The Dressmaker”) — is infected with evil spirits and sleepwalks off a roof. In the meantime, Price begins to realize his own connection to the house, why he’s the one who’s been summoned there, and why the conservatory extension is off limits.
There’s a whole arsenal of explanatory dialogue (the Spierigs share script credit with Tom Vaughan) involved in trying to set up and then solve the internal illogic of this ghostly plot, much of which involves hammering 13 nails into doors to seal off the rooms and contain the spirits. But it is still never clear why that works, and we never get to know the real architecture or layout of the house, which, with better directors at the helm, should clearly have become a character in the movie. Sadly, it never looks like anything more than a creaky studio set.
Instead we build to a climax of levitating rifles, rocking chairs and expository old newspaper cuttings, before we behold a ludicrous assembly of vengeful ghosts — including a slave in chains, an angry Native American (holding a tomahawk, no less) and various whiskery Western types — in a gathering that looks like Halloween at the local community theater. Mirren’s sternest test as an actress is to getting to the end of this without actually laughing.
What’s most interesting about the film is the expression of a strong anti-gun sentiment, the guilt that’s eating away at Aunt Sarah. Her regrets feel like the only relevant element in the film. And yet the movies, like America, were built on the gun, and while this film may want to stress its anti-gun message, it still fetishizes the weapons before culminating in a volley of bullets from ghostly trigger fingers.
Whichever way you wield it, “Winchester” is a misfire.