Helen Mirren tries her hand at horror, but can't redeem an underwhelming screenplay.
There are haunted houses, and then there's the Winchester Mystery House. Forget the occasional swinging door and creaky floorboard – in this sprawling abode, things go bump both day and night. That's the story, anyway, one spooky enough to establish the San Jose residence as a popular tourist attraction for almost a century. The seven-storey building dates back to 1884, contains 161 rooms and was under construction for nearly 40 years. It's also said to be full of ghostly inhabitants. No wonder Hollywood came knocking.
Indeed, in another life, the history of the mansion could've come with an M. Night Shyamalan-style twist, or become one of Guillermo del Toro's gothic playgrounds, with both filmmakers once interested in turning it into a movie. Instead, the spirits of their unrealised projects join the many things haunting Winchester, not the least of which is squandered potential. Try as they might, Australian directors Peter and Michael Spierig (Daybreakers, Jigsaw) just can't capitalise on their real-world premise – and that's despite their convincing command of genre fundamentals and an against-type Helen Mirren as their star.
The beloved British actress plays the widowed Sarah Winchester, heir by marriage to the Winchester firearms-manufacturing firm. Mourning the loss of her husband and infant daughter, Sarah has dedicated much of her life to building her enormous home — all while basing its unconventional, ever-changing design on otherworldly instructions. That doesn't please the company's board, who enlist psychiatrist Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to attest to her diminished capacity. Addicted to laudanum, the good doctor is haunted by demons of his own, and soon discovers there's more than a well-paying job waiting for him at Winchester manor.
If prowling around an eerie house was all it took to make an effective horror flick, Winchester would be primed for success. Once again building upon their growing genre resume, the Spierigs prove up to the task both visually and tonally, conjuring up an unnerving mood and ensuring the maze-like setting is as creepy as it should be. They're a little too fond of jump-scares, but at least they make enough of them count. Sadly, the same can't be said for the movie's obvious plotting and terrible dialogue, with the twin writer-directors — along with co-scribe Tom Vaughan (Unstoppable) – making every expected choice and saddling their characters with some truly awful lines.
That said, enlisting Mirren and Clarke, along with Sarah Snook (Predestination) and Eamon Farren (Twin Peaks: The Return) does help lift the film's fortunes somewhat. Specifically, there's plenty of fun to be had watching Mirren jump into another unexpected genre after she popped up in The Fate of the Furious just last year. The veteran actress turns in a committed performance filled with quiet resolve — all while decked out in gorgeously gothic outfits. She can't make an average movie great or even good, but at least she helps keep it from being totally forgettable.