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edge staff writer


‘Winchester’ a half-cocked horrorshow

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With a certain type of horror movie, one of the most unsettling parts happens right at the beginning. Before the film even really starts, in fact. It’s when you see the words “Inspired by true events” or some variation on that theme.

Obviously, horror filmmakers tend to embrace the leeway offered by using terms like “Inspired by” and “Based on” and what have you … and sometimes, exceptional fare is produced. Far more often, however, you get something that feels warmed-over and recycled – a tale that not even supposed veracity and verisimilitude can salvage.

You get “Winchester.” Despite an actually interesting factual foundation and a strong cast led by Helen Mirren, it’s a movie that seems content to wade in the shallow end of jump scares and other cliched tropes (along with a bit of ham-fisted moralizing) rather than actually explore a story that could have been engaged with some depth.

The year is 1906. In San Jose, California, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren, “Collateral Beauty”) is living in a ramshackle mansion that is in a state of constant construction. She is the widow of William Winchester, the founder of the eponymous gun manufacturer. Her half-ownership of the company has left her very wealthy. But the nature of that wealth – guns – has also left her in a state of mind that the company’s board finds questionable.

See, she builds these additions onto her house to serve as a refuge for what she believes are the lost and wounded souls of those killed by her family legacy.

The board enlists Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke, “Mudbound”) to go to San Jose and evaluate Mrs. Winchester’s psychological state. Despite his own issues – specifically grief for his lost wife that he medicates with laudanum – he agrees to the job.

Dr. Price goes to stay with Mrs. Winchester at her home; her niece Marion (Sarah Snook, “The Glass Castle” and Marion’s son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey in his debut) are also living there. The doctor is fascinated and confused by the seemingly haphazard manner in which the Winchester house is being built; there seems to be no rhyme or reason to how it is being put together.

But when Dr. Price begins to see evidence that perhaps Sarah Winchester isn’t so crazy after all, he’s left to question his own beliefs – and what those questions might mean for his own emotional well-being. As the inexplicable events begin to pile up, it soon becomes clear that everyone in the house is in grave danger – and there’s no clear way to stop it.

All the pieces are here for what could have been a dynamite haunted house movie. The Winchester Mystery House is a real thing, a true story perfectly suited for the kind of embellished expansion that would befit a nice and scary horror movie.

Instead, the writer/director team of brothers Michael and Peter Spierig were perfectly content to waste that wonderful source material on a piece of slapdash laziness that isn’t even good enough to call mediocre. It wallows in the familiar, offering little in the way of surprise and even less in the way of storytelling. It lumbers from beat to predictable beat before collapsing under its own weight with a final act that falls over itself in an effort to “say something.”

(Seriously – the fact that “Winchester” decides to try and send some sort of message about gun violence is ludicrous. The effort is too ineffectual to even be laughable, which is frankly impressive, albeit in all the wrong ways.)

It should be noted that of all its sins – and there are many – the movie’s biggest is the way that it utterly misuses Helen Mirren. There are few women working today who have the combination of talent and sheer on-screen gravitas that Mirren brings to the table. She’s also proven in the past that she doesn’t view herself as somehow above genre material. This should have been a home run. And she’s clearly game for whatever, but the truth is that the filmmakers let her down. There was fun to be had here, but the choice was made to instead mire her in a bland slog. It’s a damned shame.

Jason Clarke is really talented, too. As is Sarah Snook. And yet – blah. Neither of them phoned it in by any stretch of the imagination, but the reality is that if Helen Mirren can’t save the day, these two didn’t have a chance in hell.

There are a handful of moments that tease a much better film – visual touches mostly, with an occasional flash from Dame Helen. But those too-few glimpses aren’t nearly enough. “Winchester” is a movie that could have been (and SHOULD have been) so much better. Instead, we’re left with a boring retread of a film that you’ll have more-or-less forgotten before you even get your car started.

Simply put, “Winchester” is a misfire.

[1 out of 5]


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