CREDIT: Ben King/CBS Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Scicluna O’Prey, Angus Sampson, Eamon Farren

Directors: Peter and Michael Spierig

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Gunfire, Creepy Contact Lenses, and a Very PG-13 Moment of Nighttime Companionship

Release Date: February 2, 2018

When a truly original idea arrives in horror, you’ve got to hold on to it tight. Winchester has quite a unique and intriguing premise, but you would not be able to tell from the execution. Inspired by true events, it is a haunted house tale that takes place in, as one character adroitly puts it, “a house under neverending construction built on the orders of a grieving widow.” But the film never takes full advantage of all that lurks within the title abode.

Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren, fully embodying gothic haute couture) is the heiress to her late husband’s eponymous arms company, and Winchester’s plot is set in motion when Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is asked to evaluate her mental fitness and therefore capability to continue overseeing the company. Her fellow executives and shareholders have their doubts because of her obsession with endlessly adding more rooms to her mansion, which she is doing to contain the spirits of the many haunted souls who have been killed by Winchester firearms.

There is a perfect opportunity with this setup for a face-off between skepticism and belief in the supernatural. But instead, the existence of the ghosts is pretty much never in question, and no character expresses significant skepticism (nor indeed do they have any reason to). That is not necessarily a big loss, though, as the house itself allows plenty of opportunities no matter what the status of the ghosts. With construction having no master plan or endpoint, the mansion could be the most disorienting maze ever. But the film barely takes advantage of that spatial horror.

I do not mean to tell Winchester what sort of film it must be, but I do mean to express disappointment when what it chooses to be is so indistinct. Forgoing the more challenging haunts that it hints at, it instead is a run-of-the-mill possession and revenge story, with Sarah’s great nephew (Finn Scicluna O’Prey) doing his best creepy kid performance, rendering “Beautiful Dreamer” the stuff of nightmares. He is being influenced by the ghost of a Civil War veteran (Eamon Farren) who is predictably defeated in a final standoff, and then everyone moves on with their lives, the evil contained, for now at least.

Directors Michael and Peter Spierig (who previously worked with Winchester’s Sarah Snook on the twisty, heady Robert Heinlein adaptation Predestination) have a few tricks up their sleeve, holding on a shot just long enough for it to be unnerving when an arm suddenly bursts through a previously hidden opening. But overall they never develop a firm grasp on the jump scares or the slow burns, and they do not seem to be particularly committed to either. Plus, the underlying message of what constitutes terror in this story – something about fear being only in the mind – does not jibe with what is actually happening.

Winchester is Recommended If You Like: The Woman in Black, Helen Mirren in Period Clothing

Grade: 2 out of 5 Rifles