Movie Review: Cursed “Winchester” stumbles onto screens

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  “Winchester,” a haunted house period piece with a promising premise and Oscar-winner-headed cast, lurches into theaters as the first major movie disappointment of 2018.

All those spooky trailers, the promise of Helen Mirren as the surnamed firearms heiress sure that the ghosts of those killed by her family’s guns haunt her California mansion, all dashed and generally botched in a tediously tidy supernatural thriller about determining if the lady was insane or onto something.

Aussie Jason Clarke co-stars in this Australian production, playing Dr. Eric Price, a dissolute San Francisco psychotherapist hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. to declare the widow of its found not fit to run it.

Dr. Price is lost in drink and opium (Laudanum), just the guy you want to ascertain the sanity of the lady who keeps an army of contractors working around the clock, building, sealing up, tearing apart and rebuilding a vast, multi-story mansion in an effort to lock up the ghosts she senses all around her.

And wouldn’t you know it, the stoned head-shrinker sees people who aren’t there, too.

Being a man of science, he’s sure it’s his altered state that’s making this happen, and not “The unmendable souls” which “prey upon the innocent and pure.”

That would be Sarah Winchester’s nephew, Henry ( Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). The old woman, dressed in black, having visions of the rooms she is to add to this house, is sure that Henry, his mother (Sarah Snook) and her entire family is cursed. “Conditions can be cured, Doctor. Not curses!”

The filmmaking Spierig brothers of Germany co-wrote and directed this, and after their clever vampire tale “Daybreakers” and downright intellectual/supernatural thriller “Predestination,” they got lost in exposition and architecture. Though they make mention of the “guns leave ghosts” theme, repeatedly, they don’t boldface that hook. And the one historical connection to the deadly rifle is an anachronism, a Civil War soldier who blames a rifle that wasn’t invented in the Civil War and a company that didn’t come into existence until 1866 for his dead comrades.

As simple as haunted house tales are, the conceit plum evades the Spierigs.

The vast, gloomy 1906 house has only the odd jolt and endless chairs rocking with no one in them, doors opened by unseen hands. And then there are the seen hands — claws, really. All of which poor Dr. Price is sure he’s just seeing in his altered state.

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This isn’t the most riveting turn by Clarke, so memorable as an interrogator in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Nor is it one of those performances Mirren will claim as one of her great credits. It’s hard to call “Winchester” a squandered opportunity when good actors can’t hide their disappointment at the material they’re performing. They’re at a loss to express the shock at what they cannot be seeing.

Back where Dame Helen comes from, they’d call this “weak tea,” and indeed Lionsgate and CBS figured this out probably before they’d released the second trailer to the film, picking Super Bowl weekend to release it, not previewing it for the reviewing press.

But late last summer, when we got our first peeks at “Winchester,” we could be excused for getting our hopes up. Now we can only cling to the notion that maybe this will be the biggest let-down of a year that is almost certain to serve up greater examples of that, too.

1half-star

MPAA Rating:PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements

Cast: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke,  Sarah Snook

Credits:Directed by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig, script by Tom Vaughan, Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig.  A CBS Films/Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:39

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