‘Winchester’ Film Review: Helen Mirren Looks Bored, and With Good Reason

Ben King/CBS Films/Lionsgate

Based on a true story — or as the movies guardedly put it these days, “inspired by true events” — “Winchester” hurls Dame Helen Mirren into her first horror movie.
With 129 acting credits listed to her name on IMDb, it’s amazing to find Mirren hasn’t really done horror before, although John Boorman’s “Excalibur” was a bit scary, Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” was baroque, and “Red 2” and “Collateral Beauty” are a couple of shockers.
Here, in an Australian-backed enterprise by the Spierig Brothers (“Daybreakers,” “Jigsaw”), the Oscar winner plays Sarah Winchester, a spinster all in black lace, heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune who has now (it’s 1906) ensconced herself away in a big, ever-expanding house which is in a continual state of build and repair, all day and night.
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Into this eccentric abode is sent San Francisco psychiatrist Eric Price, played by the potato-esque Jason Clarke. He’s been commissioned to assess Ms. Winchester’s mental state as the board of the rifle company seeks to wrest back control. Price’s recreational addiction to laudanum begins to seem like a very bad idea when he starts seeing ghosts in the mirror, every glance underlined by loud jump-scare music (composed by Peter Spierig), every doorway concealing a possible “Boo!” moment. Yes, even the door to the cellar; no cliché left unturned in this one.
Although Price attempts to take control, he’s no match for Sarah Winchester, certainly not the way she’s played by Mirren, who lifts back her veil to reveal her grimmest game face, one that reads: Right, let’s get this nonsense over with as quickly as we can, shall we?
Her character, though, is caught in an alarming limbo, communing with the dead spirits gunned down by her company’s great legacy, the repeating rifle, the weapon which won the Wild West. Even corporate diversification into roller-skate production isn’t without a ghostly victim or two.
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Ms. Winchester’s spirit connection goes further: We discover that it’s the ghosts who are possessing her at night and “guiding” her to re-construct the rooms in which they were shot, so she’s forever adding to her house, drawing up new plans and ripping down extensions until the place becomes an Escher-like maze of stairways going nowhere, trap doors and dead ends. This “house that spirits built” is still around, known as America’s most haunted house, and apparently open for tourist visits, in San Jose (if you know the way, of course).
Mirren does her best to bring some gravitas to the role, although I’m not sure that’s what it needed. She may have been the Queen, but she’s no scream queen. Nor does she give it the whole Miss Havisham scary-spinster camp. It needed a bit more Bette Davis, a bit of sarcasm. Mirren just looks like she hates being here.
Even Mirren’s lifeless Winchester is enough to give the opiated Dr. Price (and the lumpen Clarke) the runaround, while her young nephew Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) — staying in the house with his mother (Sarah Snook, “The Dressmaker”) — is infected with evil spirits and sleepwalks off a roof. In the meantime, Price begins to realize his own connection to the house, why he’s the one who’s been summoned there, and why the conservatory extension is off limits.
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There’s a whole arsenal of explanatory dialogue (the Spierigs share script credit with Tom Vaughan) involved in trying to set up and then solve the internal illogic of this ghostly plot, much of which involves hammering 13 nails into doors to seal off the rooms and contain the spirits. But it is still never clear why that works, and we never get to know the real architecture or layout of the house, which, with better directors at the helm, should clearly have become a character in the movie. Sadly, it never looks like anything more than a creaky studio set.
Instead we build to a climax of levitating rifles, rocking chairs and expository old newspaper cuttings, before we behold a ludicrous assembly of vengeful ghosts — including a slave in chains, an angry Native American (holding a tomahawk, no less) and various whiskery Western types — in a gathering that looks like Halloween at the local community theater. Mirren’s sternest test as an actress is to getting to the end of this without actually laughing.
What’s most interesting about the film is the expression of a strong anti-gun sentiment, the guilt that’s eating away at Aunt Sarah. Her regrets feel like the only relevant element in the film. And yet the movies, like America, were built on the gun, and while this film may want to stress its anti-gun message, it still fetishizes the weapons before culminating in a volley of bullets from ghostly trigger fingers.
Whichever way you wield it, “Winchester” is a misfire.

Amy Adams (1974)
Academy Award nominated Amy Adams is best known for roles in Disney’s “Enchanted” and “Arrival.” She most recently starred in Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals.”

Cameron Diaz (1972)
Cameron Diaz first made her mark in Hollywood with comedies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “The Mask.” She most recently starred alongside Will Smith in “Annie.”

Cate Blanchett (1969)
The two time Academy Award winning actress is best known for her role in “The Aviator.” She has since starred in films like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Babel,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Blanchett will appear as the villain in the November blockbuster “Thor: Ragnarok

Catherine Zeta-Jones (1969)
Zeta-Jones is best known for starring in “Intolerable Cruelty” and “Ocean’s Twelve.” She most recently starred as Olivia de Havilland in the FX limited series “Feud.”

Famke Janssen (1964)
Famke Janssen is best known for playing Jean Grey in the “X-Men” film series. Recently she’s had a recurring role on the TV series “How to Get Away With Murder” alongside Viola Davis and “The Blacklist”

Gabrielle Union (1972)
Gabrielle Union first had her breakthrough role in the cult comedy “Bring it On.” Since she’s starred in films like “Think Like a Man,” “Deliver Us From Eva,” and “Bad Boys II.” Most recently she’s starred on BET’s first scripted drama “Being Mary Jane.”

Gwyneth Paltrow (1972)
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Halle Berry (1966)
Academy Award winning actress Halle Berry was once one of the highest paid actress in Hollywood, and to date is the only black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar. She most recently starred in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.”

Helen Mirren (1945)
One award short of EGOT status, Mirren most recently starred in “Collateral Beauty” and “The Fate of the Furious.”

Helena Bonham Carter (1966)
Helena Bonham Carter has starred in films like “Fight Club,” “Hamlet,” and the “Harry Potter” film series. She will also be playing a role in “Ocean’s Eight.”

Jane Lynch (1960)
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Jennifer Aniston (1969)
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Jennifer Connelly (1970)
Connelly made her debut in film with “Once Upon a Time in America.” Since, she has starred in movies like “A Beautiful Mind” and “He’s Just Not That Into You.” Her upcoming projects include “Only the Brave” and “Alita: Battle Angel.”

Jennifer Lopez (1969)
Jennifer Lopez is probably one of few actresses to have both a successful musical and acting career simultaneously. Lopez has starred in films like “The Wedding Planner” and “Monster in Law,” her must recent project is “Ice Age: Collision Course.”

Jodie Foster (1962)
Jodie Foster had her breakthrough role in “Taxi Driver.” She also had roles in “Silence of the Lambs,” “Contact” and “Panic Room,” and is currently working on “Hotel Artemis.” She’s also sat in the director’s chair several times, most recently with “Money Monster” and an episode of the upcoming season of “Black Mirror.”

Julia Roberts (1967)
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Julianne Moore (1960)
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Leslie Mann (1972)
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Marisa Tomei (1964)
Marisa Tomei had her breakthrough role in “My Cousin Vinny.” Since, she’s starred in films like “What Women Want” and “Anger Management.” Recently she’s taken on the role of Aunt May in “Spiderman: Homecoming” and “Captain America: Civil War.”

Melissa McCarthy (1970)
This multi-hyphenate first garnered attention as Sookie in “Gilmore Girls.” Since, she’s played in notable films like “Bridesmaids” and “Ghostbusters.” Her upcoming projects include “Life of the Party,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” and “The HappyTime Murders.” Not to mention her incredibly memorable turn as Sean Spicer on “SNL.”

Meryl Streep (1949)
Meryl Streep currently holds the record for being the most nominated actor at the Oscars. She’s starred in notable films since the 1970’s and still has projects coming out next year like “Mary Poppins Returns.”

Monica Bellucci (1964)
Monica Bellucci is conquering both European and American film markets. She gained worldwide attention with films like “Brotherhood of the Wolf” and “Malèna” and the “Matrix” sequels. She was also the oldest woman to be cast as one of the Bond Girls. Bellucci most recently appeared in the 2017 “Twin Peaks” revival series. 

Naomi Watts (1968)
Naomi Watts got her big break with David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” Since then she’s had roles in “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger” and “The Ring.” She most recently starred as Janey-E in “Twin Peaks.”

Nia Long (1970)
Nia Long has had almost a lifetime of success in Hollywood. She starred in the 90’s classics “Boyz n the Hood” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” She currently appears on “NCIS: Los Angeles.”

Nicole Kidman (1967)
Nicole Kidman has won just about every major acting award out there and for good reason. She starred in “The Hours,” “Rabbit Hole,” and “The Others.” She most recently appeared in the HBO hit “Big Little Lies.”

Octavia Spencer (1970)
Octavia Spencer only recently had her big break with her role in “The Help” in 2011 — and she won an Oscar for it. Since, she’s starred in “Fruitvale Station,” “The Divergent” series, and “Hidden Figures.” Her most recent projects include “The Gifted” and “A Kid Like Jake” which comes out in 2018.

Oprah Winfrey (1954)
This one doesn’t even need any explanation. It’s Oprah. But she will be starring in Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” which premieres in 2018. Plus she has an entire television network and produces “Queen Sugar.”

Rachel Weisz (1970)
Weisz is best known for her roles in “The Mummy” film series. She’s also had roles in “About a Boy” and “Constantine.” Her upcoming projects include “The Mercy” and “Favourite” which are both out in 2018.

Salma Hayek (1966)
Salma Hayek was a staple of 90s genre flicks like “Desperado,” “The Faculty” and “Wild Wild West” before landing an Oscar nod for portraying Frida Kahlo in the film “Frida.” She most recently starred in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard.”

Sanaa Lathan (1971)
Sanaa Lathan has starred in many cult classics like “Love & Basketball,” “The Best Man,” and “Brown Sugar.” She currently stars in the TV series “Shots Fired.” 

Sandra Bullock (1964)
Sandra Bullock has basically starred in all of our favorite movies from “Miss Congeniality” to “While You Were Sleeping” to “The Blind Side.” She will be starring in the much anticipated film “Ocean’s Eight” which is out in 2018.

Sofia Vergara (1972)
Vergara has starred in films like “Soul Plane” and “Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns.” She currently stars in “Modern Family.”

Taraji P. Henson (1970)
Taraji broke out in “Baby Boy,” and has garnered recognition for her roles in “Hustle and Flow” and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” She most recently starred in “Hidden Figures” and rocks everybody’s world as Cookie on “Empire.”

Tilda Swinton (1960)
Tilda Swinton is known for her roles in “The Chronicles of Narnia” film series and “The Deep End.” She most recently starred in “Doctor Strange” and “Okja” and her voice talents will appear in 2018’s “Isle of Dogs.”

Tina Fey (1970)
Tina Fey is best known for her comedic acts on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” but she’s had great success on the big screen too. She’s starred in hit movies like “Date Night” and “Baby Mama.” She most recently starred in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.”

Toni Collette (1972)
Toni Collette received recognition for her role in “The Sixth Sense.” Since, she’s starred in “About a Boy” and “The Hours.” She most recently starred in “Unlocked” and has a film coming out in 2018.

Tracee Ellis Ross (1972)
Tracee Ellis Ross broke out in the hit series “Girlfriends.” She currently stars in the popular ABC series “Black-ish.”

Uma Thurman (1970)
Uma Thurman garnered critical acclaim for her role in “Pulp Fiction.” Since, she’s starred in “Les Misérables” and “Kill Bill” and numerous other flicks. She currently has two films coming out this year, “The War With Grandpa” and “The Brits Are Coming.”

Vera Farmiga (1973)
Vera Farmiga has had success with hits like the “Conjuring” movies and Best Picture-winner “The Departed,” and landed an Oscar nomination for “Up in the Air.” She currently has projects lined up until 2019. 

Viola Davis (1965)
Viola Davis has had minor roles in shows like “Law and Order” and movies like “Kate and Leopold,” but it wasn’t until her Oscar-nominated performance in “Doubt” that she began to receive the recognition she deserved. Since she’s also garnered critical acclaim for her role in “Fences” and “The Help.” She currently stars in ABC’s hit series “How to Get Away With Murder.”

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Amy Adams (1974)
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