‘Winchester’ could have been a great ‘true’ ghost story

Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren star in “Winchester.” (Courtesy Ben King/CBS Films)

Believers in ghosts in the Bay Area probably looked forward to the new movie “Winchester” more than anyone else in the world.

After all, it’s about a piece of our history, rifle heiress Sarah Winchester and her famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, told as an honest-to-goodness ghost story.

With Helen Mirren in the title role, it had the chance to be smarter than “The Amityville Horror” and classier than “The Conjuring.”

But then the word came down that “Winchester” was not being screened in advance for critics, an ominous sign that a movie is no good.

Its first half is more or less forgivable. Set in 1906, the movie provides some details about Mrs. Winchester, many or most of them based on real life.

Then it invents a fictitious character, Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), who is contacted by the Board of Supervisors of the Winchester Rifle Co.

They are “worried” about Mrs. Winchester’s sanity, and her ability to run the company (of which she owns 51 percent). They want a psychological assessment; if she doesn’t pass, ownership of the very profitable company reverts to the board.

It’s easy to buy this part, given that greedy corporate types go so far as to bribe Dr. Price to give an assessment that works in their favor.

So Price heads to the house, and gets a grand tour from Mrs. Winchester’s niece (Sarah Snook). There’s a proper build-up to Mrs. Winchester’s first entrance, and her sessions with Dr. Price are rather fascinating.

But Dr. Price begins seeing ghosts, and the directors, Australian twin brothers Peter and Michael Spierig, show them with the most conventional “scary” makeup, and most unimaginative jump-scares seemingly possible.

The plot then centers around one particular ghost, this one “more powerful than the rest,” who must be stopped. It’s extremely lazy storytelling. The story of Mrs. Winchester is already quite extraordinary, so why invent an “extraordinary” ghost?

As the tellers of this story, the Spierigs had potential. They made the fun vampire movie “Daybreakers” and then the excellent sci-fi “Predestination.”

That film featured Snook in an astonishing performance; here she’s relegated to roaming the mansion’s corridors holding a candle and calling for her lost son.

The Spierigs’ vision of “Winchester” seemed like a great idea: a unique snapshot of a life story, told as a genre film rather than a typical A-to-B-to-C biopic.

It might have been something like John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” which was really a fantastic courtroom drama, or Bill Condon’s “Gods and Monsters,” which used horror imagery to tell the life story of “Frankenstein” director James Whale.

Or it simply might have been as well-made and scary as James Wan’s based-on-a-true-story “The Conjuring.”

Instead it feels like it’s missing connective tissue in parts of the story. It makes huge, illogical leaps from point to point, and totally loses the thread of Mrs. Winchester’s personal mysteries.

It even includes one of those cheap horror-movie, “it’s all over… or IS IT?” endings.

Fans of the real house — the brothers filmed a few days in San Jose but shot mainly on sets built in Australia — will find some things to cherish in the first half of “Winchester,” but by the time it ends, it’s like a spent rifle. It made a lot of noise, and now it’s empty.


Two and a half stars
Starring Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Angus Sampson
Written by Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig, Tom Vaughan
Directed by Peter Spierig, Michael Spierig
Rated PG-13
Running time 1 hour. 39 minutes

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