Silly Winchester proves a weak platform for Helen Mirren’s horror debut

By Steve Newton

Three-and-a-half months ago Jigsaw, the eighth entry in the Saw torture-porn franchise, was released. Not too surprisingly it was a mostly mediocre affair, although it included one memorable scene near the end where a guy’s head got sliced lengthwise into several pieces by a barrage of high-tech laser scalpels.

Lasting moments are also rare in the new haunted-house period-piece Winchester. The only scene that sticks with you is the one where a possessed ginger kid with a rifle stalks an old lady along a mazelike hallway, blindly firing at her through its wooden partitions.

Both Jigsaw and Winchester were directed by the Australian twin-brother team of Michael and Peter Spierig, so hey, at least they’re consistent.

In this unconvincing spook show, set in 1906, Aussie Jason Clarke stars as Eric Price, a San Francisco psychotherapist who mixes hookers and Laudanum to help him cope with a tragedy-laced past. The opiate-addicted shrink gets commissioned by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to assess the mental state of company heiress Sarah Winchester (Oscar-winner Dame Helen Mirren, in her horror debut), who oversees a 150-plus-room mansion in San Jose (actually Melbourne, Australia). The eccentric old coot has ordered around-the-clock renovations on the sprawling structure, with plans to house the angry spirits of those killed by her powerful namesake weapon. (The film is “inspired by actual events” that occurred at what is now known as the Winchester Mystery House, a tourist attraction in San Jose since 1923.)

When Price shows up to study Winchester’s wellness the movie soon morphs into a string of cliched appearances by various apparitions, all delivered with routine jump-scares that make ready use of the labyrinthine set’s many mirrors, fine cabinetry, and shadowy passageways. The guilt-ridden Winchester offers longwinded commentary on the “guns make ghosts” theme and roams the mansion at night shrouded in black, scribbling plans for yet more rooms to secure her phantom guests. Her young nephew (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) gets possessed by the spirit of a deranged Civil War soldier, puts a sack over his head, and dangerously sleepwalks around the place before his eyeballs turn white and he has his mandatory Linda Blair moment.

The silliness continues as we’re waylaid by a wacky array of vengeful ghosts–including a slave in chains and a tomahawk-wielding Native American–culminating in a close-quarters shoot-out that produces plenty of splintered wood and shattered glass but nada in the entertainment department.

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