WINCHESTER — 2 stars — Helen Mirren, Sarah Snook, Jason Clarke; PG-13 (violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements); in general release
"Winchester" will make you jump, but it won't really scare you, and even the presence of Dame Helen Mirren isn't enough to save its clumsy story from running out of ammunition before the final reel.
Directed by brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, "Winchester" is the "inspired by true events" story of Sarah Winchester (Mirren), the majority shareholder of the famous rifle company who believes she's being haunted by the ghosts of Winchester shooting victims.
Set during a single week in 1906, "Winchester" follows the visit of a psychologist named Eric Price (Jason Clarke), hired by the company to evaluate Winchester's mental condition. For years, Winchester has used the company's vast financial resources to turn a comparatively modest San Jose home into a sprawling, seven-story mansion.
But Winchester isn't interested in an eccentric demonstration of wealth. Her eternal construction project is an effort to accommodate the tormented spirits of the many souls who have lost their lives at the wrong end of the company rifles. For some, the home is a gateway to a peaceful rest; for others, not so much.
Price arrives right around the time a spirit from the latter category is settling in. For some reason, this new demon has attached himself to Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey), Winchester's great-nephew, who has been living at the house with his mother (Sarah Snook) since he witnessed the tragic death of his father. Winchester believes this death is yet another example of the family curse.
Price is bringing along his own share of demons, still mourning the loss of his wife Ruby (Laura Brent) in a mysterious incident that involved his own relatively brief death. In Price's case, mourning has taken the form of a drug addiction.
Price's connection to the afterlife has made him more sensitive to Winchester's brand of demons — though he remains a skeptic — and the film unfolds as the secretive Winchester gradually uncovers the deeper layers of the infamous family history in order to allow Price to combat its demons.
Casting a presence like Mirren will take you a long way, and Clarke does a decent job of keeping pace. Unfortunately, "Winchester" never manages to create a tone or atmosphere to match the frights it wants the audience to feel. To engage the audience, the Spierig brothers rely almost exclusively on jump scares — usually in the form of sudden appearances of ghoulish faces — and as a result, the film never really takes root.
For its first two acts, "Winchester's" story remains just interesting enough to justify your attention, but it unravels quickly in the finale, making its ham-fisted delivery and excess spats of expositional dialogue all the more obvious. Even the presumably anti-gun moral to the story falls flat.
You get the feeling, though, that the biggest missed opportunity here was the house. According to IMDb, parts of "Winchester" were filmed at the historic mansion, though most of the interiors were constructed on sound stages thanks to the original home's cramped quarters. Even so, you get the sense that a more seasoned director would have done more to make the home a true character in the film. Unfortunately, real or not, the house in "Winchester" is just a set, and its characters are little more than chess pieces moved around in an ill-conceived game.
"Winchester" is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements; running time: 99 minutes.