Review: 'Winchester'

Despite a talented cast, the Mystery House movie feels unfinished
Helen Mirren shines as the haunted Sarah Winchester—too bad 'Winchester,' like the Mystery House, seems unfinished.

Like the house itself, Winchester is two-thirds scary, one-third unfinished. As anticipated as it was around here, the Helen Mirren-starring horror flick unfortunately turns out to be a ramshackle and incomplete edifice. This despite a solid, hardworking cast and a starring role by the Winchester House itself—seen in lingering drone shots from the air and from location footage.

Spring 1906: In San Francisco, the decadent, laudanum-fancying Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is recruited to assess the sanity of the reclusive heiress Sarah Winchester (Mirren), the 51-percent owner of the Winchester rifle company. He arrives at the San Jose home, only to be given a cold shoulder by Winchester's niece Marion (Sarah Snook) and her sometimes possessed boy nephew Henry. Price learns two things: first, that the endless construction on the Victorian has a supernatural purpose. Second, Price got the job because of something he endured at the hands of the woman he loved.

The critic Pauline Kael, describing a horror film, wrote, "It's not that I'm not susceptible. I'm just not as proud of it as some people." This susceptible viewer got jolted by several gong-ringing pop-ups early on, as well as one quiet thrill: a butler's flashlight-under-the-chin line reading of why the bell tolls at the Winchester House at midnight. "It is midnight, sir."

The sound design, of voices sobbing through the pneumatic tubes, and creaks and tinkling of glass, all were satisfactory. The weird, malignant flunky patrolling the place (Eamon Farren) was suitably menacing, even if the Southern accent needed work. Elements of Winchester worked better than the payoff, which tried to make Winchester's anti-gun mania more relevant, through an info-dump about a modern-style mass shooting to explain the legion of demons assailing the house.

To their credit, the brotherly co-directing team of Peter and Michael Spierig are more civilized than bloodthirsty—note how, when Price chops his way through a flooring, he doesn't get impaled on the splinters as he climbs. The explanation of the Winchester House's myriad rooms was novel—the film seems to be running with an idea that turned up in Clive Barker's short story "In the Flesh," about a purgatory for murderers.

To cook up a finale, Mirren ends up tossed around Exorcist style, and this was silly, but even dressed in classic widow's weeds and tight collar, she demonstrates considerable allure: more than just acting skill, we see a personal power that age cannot weaken.

PG-13, 99 Min.

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