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08 Feb 2018

Cool Premise, Terrible Execution: Helen Mirren Is Wasted in the Surprisingly Awful Ghost Film 'Winchester'

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Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren in Winchester. Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren in Winchester.

Toward the end of Winchester—the new haunted house movie starring Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke—a character has a moment when she says the words, “I am not afraid,” repeatedly.

My sentiments exactly.

Mirren and Clarke head a decent cast in what proves to be a movie without any real scares, personality or real reason to sit down and watch it. The acting is terrible; the editing is sloppy; and the special effects are third-rate. This level of failure is very surprising, considering it was directed by Michael and Peter Spierig, the brothers who put together the inventive science-fiction thriller Predestination.

Clarke plays Eric Price, a doctor addicted to drugs and alcohol. His wife died due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound via a Winchester rifle, a rifle from which he also took a bullet, although he survived. (The script alludes to him being dead for three minutes before being brought back to life, so he might be able to see dead people.)

Meanwhile, the members of “the board” at the Winchester firearms company want Eric to evaluate the mental health of company owner Sarah Winchester (Mirren), hoping that the disgraced doctor will basically take their bribe, declare Sarah unfit to run her company, and strip her of company control. Eric has nothing better to do, so he takes the gig and travels to the infamous real-life house—a cool-looking giant abode that makes an appearance in the film. Upon seeing the real haunted house onscreen, I was hoping for a haunted house spectacle like Kubrick’s The Shining, which featured the labyrinthine Overlook Hotel.

Instead, we get a ghost movie that trots out the same old tricks used in countless ghost movies before it. Ghosts suddenly appearing, accompanied by a loud soundtrack noise? Check. Ghosts appearing in a mirror after a user adjusts it? Check. Little possessed kids singing a well-known song in that oh-so-creepy-possessed-kid kind of way? Check.

The actual Winchester house, located in San Jose, has an impressive ghost story to go with it. The real Sarah Winchester, after inheriting the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, believed the house was inhabited by the spirits of those who fell victim to Winchester rifles. One would think that premise would make for a snappy movie, but instead, there’s just a bunch of nonsense involving Mirren’s Sarah nailing all the rooms shut and trying to avoid getting killed by her possessed, super-annoying grandson. There’s also the spectacle of Clarke doing some embarrassingly bad drunk/stoned-guy acting.

The special-effects ghosts are laughable—but even worse are the ghosts played by people wearing practical makeup. Price has a scene with his deceased wife in which she looks like somebody who tried to put her makeup on with the lights off—not a ghost. I know it would make the movie even more clichéd, but ghosts should be see through, right? When an actor or actress stands around in bad makeup in this film, it looks like somebody from the local junior high-level production of Jeepers, I Got Spooked by Ghosts in My Mom’s Basement crashed the film set.

There’s a ghost in this movie that poses as a servant on the Winchester staff. This got me thinking: Where did the ghost get his Winchester employee uniform to pull off his impersonation scheme? Is there a special costume warehouse in the afterlife where mischievous ghosts can go to rent them? When we die, are we empowered with massive tailoring abilities to go with our powers to pass through walls and shit? Or do ghosts looking to start trouble simply grab previously worn uniforms off the rack at Savers? Do they consult with Beetlejuice?

My mind was so bored, it started coming up with this kind of crap while I watched this thing. The movie is one long scene after another of Mirren and Clarke trying to make sense out of the mess. I suspect we’ll be talking about this one again in about 10 months, when we are compiling our year’s-worst lists.

Winchester is now playing at theaters across the valley.

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