Whenever a movie opens in wide release without screening in advance for critics, those of us with a professional duty to seek it out immediately brace ourselves — not without some eagerness — for an experience of epic, unprecedented awfulness.
Once in a while our expectations are satisfied — I still (vaguely) remember you, "Aeon Flux"! — but most of the time we find ourselves let down, longing for memorable turkeys and instead getting stuck with bland mediocrities like "Winchester."
Directed by brothers Michael and Peter Spierig ("Daybreakers," "Jigsaw"), who wrote the script with Tom Vaughan, this dour and derivative ghost story exploits the mysterious legacy of Sarah Winchester, the reclusive heiress who spent much of the early 1900s — and much of the fortune she inherited from her firearm-magnate husband — building an enormous seven-story estate in San Jose. The design for each room was inspired, or so she believed, by the whispers of those tortured souls who had the misfortune to perish at the end of a Winchester rifle, and who had returned from the grave to either heap punishment on the family or offer them redemption.
Depending on your perspective, then, you might describe "Winchester" as an unusually dull supernatural thriller or an unusually protracted gun-control PSA. In either case, I doubt that any staunch 2nd Amendment advocates would find it especially troubling. In the wake of yet another wave of mass-shooting headlines, a few creaky floorboards and howling apparitions are unlikely to disturb anyone's conscience.
It's 1906 when representatives of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. invite a San Francisco psychologist named Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess Sarah Winchester's mental state, hoping that he will declare her unfit to lead the company. This will require Dr. Price to spend a few nights at her legendary home, a labyrinthine Victorian Xanadu of stained-glass windows and German-imported silver chandeliers. Construction workers toil on the rooftops day and night, tirelessly constructing new rooms and wings with a limitless budget but no apparent blueprint on hand.
But Sarah isn't about to relinquish her grip on either her sanity or her fortune, and Helen Mirren, among the canniest of screen actors, supplies a rational impulse for her every Miss Havisham-like eccentricity. Clad in funereal black, still mourning the untimely deaths of her husband and their infant daughter years ago, Sarah stalks the house's endless stairways and corridors with purpose and conviction, insistent in her belief that she is building a shelter for the spirits of the slaughtered — those who died at the Winchester company's hands.
Sarah has an ardent defender in her widowed niece, Marian (Sarah Snook), whose young son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey), has an unfortunate habit of sleepwalking with a bag over his head. Dr. Price, for his part, seems similarly susceptible to the house's dark visions. Like his hosts, he is no stranger to untimely family tragedy. He also has a weakness for booze and opium, making it initially unclear if the ghosts he's seeing are genuine visions or mere figments of his druggy imagination.
In the right hands, that ambiguity — reminiscent of the conundrum at the heart of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" and Jack Clayton's brilliant 1961 film adaptation, "The Innocents" — might have yielded a slippery, spine-tingling study in the power of suggestion. The frustration of "Winchester" is that the Spierigs' hands might, once upon a time, have been the right ones. Few audiences saw their little-seen 2014 time-travel thriller, "Predestination," but on the evidence of that science-fiction tour de force, there was every reason to hope they might pull off a similarly ingenious cinematic parlor trick here.
Unfortunately, having laid out an unusually intricate and politically charged puzzle, "Winchester" proceeds to solve it in the clunkiest, most perfunctory way imaginable. The filmmakers' taste in trick mirrors and shuddering armoires is impeccable, and they get some decent mileage out of a demon-possessed roller skate. But no matter how many non-sequitur jolts they manage to squeeze into these jumpy proceedings, the ability to sustain a sense of dread, to create tension that lasts beyond the immediate moment, seems dispiritingly beyond their grasp.
Rating: PG-13, for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: In general release