“Winchester” opened on a bad weekend, and I mean that on two fronts. The first is that it’s the weekend of the Super Bowl, so the movie can kiss its Sunday evening audience goodbye. The second is that we’re only four weeks removed from “Insidious: The Last Key,” and the movies are awfully similar. For starters, they share an actor – Angus Sampson plays a blowhard ghost chaser in the “Insidious” movies, here he plays a construction worker. And there’s no denying the similarities between the fair-haired authoritative older women, played in “Insidious” by Lin Shaye and here by Helen Mirren. But the most unforgiveable similarity is that both films are bump-in-the-night PG-13 horror movies that are good for little more than a few cheap jump scares.
The movie takes place in 1906 and stars Jason Clarke stars as Eric Price, a psychologist who lost his wife in a botched murder-suicide. Deeply in debt, he’s hired to perform a psychological evalution on reclusive widow Sarah Winchester (Mirren), majority shareholder of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. This requires him to take up temporary residence in Winchester Mansion in San Jose, a sprawling seven-story architectural monstrosity consisting of dozens of randomly-appointed rooms and undergoing constant renovations. The movie was filmed at the actual Winchester Mystery House, and I wish the movie would have spent more time just exploring the oddities of the house than getting bogged down in a by-the-numbers horror storyline.
The people paying Price clearly want him to declare Sarah mentally unfit to run the company, and at first it looks like they won’t have to twist his arm too hard to get that diagnosis. Sarah believes the house is haunted by the ghosts of people who have been killed by Winchester rifles. She adds rooms as often as she does because recreating the people’s final resting places allows them to manifest themselves so she can help them find closure. Price thinks this is all madness, of course, but he wonders how Sarah knows about his wife’s garden room. He’s creeped out by the house, sometimes by servants who appear out of nowhere and sometimes by blood that oozes out of the wall. But he figures there’s a rational explanation for everything, and that he’s just hallucinating because Sarah won’t let him have his “medication” in the house. The fact that Sarah is a woman in 1906 who won’t let a man drink whatever questionable substance he wants (the bottle is actually labelled “Poison”) isn’t going to do her any favors on the evaluation.
You can probably guess where this is all going. Strange things keep happening until even Price can’t deny that the house is haunted. Most of the spirits don’t want to harm the living, but one wants to bring down the whole Winchester family. The key to resolving the situation lies with Price and his ability to confront his past. He carries around a bullet that played a part in the death of his wife, perhaps it can play a part in saving lives instead of taking them. And when I say “perhaps,” I mean of course it will.
“Winchester” isn’t without its minor charms. The Winchester House is an interesting setting, the costumes are top-notch, and Clarke and Mirren turn in better performances than the material deserves. But there’s still an unshakeable feeling that we got this movie last month, and it wasn’t terribly original then either. A ghost wants to show up in the background of a quiet scene? We’re expecting the ghost, it would be rude of it not to put in an appearance. “Winchester” is a forgettable, ineffectual film. It didn’t even open to more money than the seventh week of “Jumanji,” so I have a feeling it’s going to become a ghost real soon.
“Winchester” is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements. Its running time is 99 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.