[Screen It]


(2018) (Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke) (PG-13)

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Horror: A troubled doctor is hired to examine the mental state of the widow of a gun magnate who's continuously adding on to her mansion with odd features such as doors and stairs that go nowhere in hopes of containing what she believes are the spirits of those killed by her husband's weapons.
It's 1906 and Eric Price (JASON CLARKE) is a doctor with drug abuse problems stemming from the death of his troubled wife, Ruby (LAURA BRENT). Despite his state, he's called upon by the board of directors of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company to examine the mental state of Sarah Winchester (HELEN MIRREN), the long-widowed majority owner of the company. Following her husband's death and the demise of their infant child, she moved to San Jose, California where she constructed an immense mansion that's still under construction twenty-four hours a day. The board doesn't believe Sarah is mentally stable enough to run the company and thus wants Eric to examine her and give his assessment of just that.

When he arrives at the place he first meets Sarah's niece, Marian Marriott (SARAH SNOOK), who's staying there with her pre-teen son, Henry (FINN SCICLUNA-O'PREY) following a family tragedy of their own. Eric notes the non-stop construction as well as odd features such as doors and stairs that go nowhere and he soon learns there's a method to Sarah's apparent madness. It seems she believes that spirits of those killed by her husband's company's weapons have come to the house for closure via recreations of the rooms in which they perished. For those spirits who are freed, their rooms are torn out and new ones are built in their place. For those who can't or don't want to be freed, they're locked in their rooms and held there.

At first, Eric doesn't believe any of that and attests his startling visions of the dead to the hallucinogenic drugs he's been taking to cope with his own loss, and then his withdrawal from that over the days. But with Henry appearing to be possessed at times and with repeated odd occurrences, he comes to believe that what Sarah is saying might be true. And with the appearance of one such vengeful spirit, Ben Block (EAMON FARREN), Eric does what he can to save Sarah, Marian, and her boy.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
I don't exactly recall why -- although I'm guessing it was probably some TV show or movie I saw as a child featuring this -- but I've always been enamored with secret rooms or closets in homes. I've never had one myself, although I once visited a model home for sale that featured an entire room hidden behind a fake bookcase that pivoted outward and I loved every aspect of it.

Thus, I've long been fascinated with the Winchester Mystery House located in San Jose, California. It was owned by Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun magnate William Winchester. Following his death in 1881 she inherited a great deal of money and moved there with the reported belief that the spirits of those killed by her husband's weapons were haunting her and the only way to stymie them was via building structural oddities -- including but not limited to stairs and doors that went nowhere -- inside the 161 room mansion.

Considering all of that and how popular horror films are and have been over the decades, it's surprising no one's made a full-length movie about Winchester and the house named after her. Well, that cinematic drought ends with this week's release of the simply titled "Winchester" (which previously was going by the title "Winchester: The House that Ghosts Built" that sounds like something which should air on HGTV after "Fixer Upper").

Featuring the great Helen Mirren as the titular protagonist and Jason Clarke as a doctor summoned by her company's board of directors to test her mental stability, the film would seem to have everything going for it. But when I learned that no PR agencies were handling the release (which is the standard operating procedure for 99.9% of all films hitting theaters) I got a little nervous about the prospects of it being any good.

And then when I then discovered that it was indeed opening cold (without any previews for critics or even average moviegoers to generate word of mouth), I anticipated this was going to be a missed opportunity -- and possibly an awful, one at that -- to make a scary flick based on a seemingly genuinely spooky place.

The film is directed by the sibling duo of Peter Spierig and Michael Spierig (who recently rebooted the "Saw" franchise in a film I skipped because, well, I've had enough of torture porn horror flicks and that was the eighth installment in the "Saw" franchise) from a script they co-wrote with Tom Vaughn. It has a decent enough premise and it features some fairly effective jump scene jolts. In fact, it perhaps possesses and relies on too many of them instead of creating something truly unnerving and unsettling that burrows itself into your psyche and makes you nervous at night.

Movies like "The Exorcist" and "The Shining" are examples of that, and I can still give myself goosebumps just by humming the opening score during the flyover title credits of Stanley Kubrick's horror masterpiece. Alas, that's not going to happen with this offering that I'll likely forget most of by the end of this upcoming weekend. I guess jolts are easier to conjure up than spooky creepiness as the Spierig siblings perhaps set a record of jump scenes per average minutes span of any horror film of recent.

Yes, such startling moments can be effective and they are at times here. But like a spirit passing by at the end of any horror movie hallway, they're transient at best and have no sticking power. You flinch and then move on and await the next jolt and so on. All of which is too bad since there's some decent potential in the premise of the collective supernatural repercussions of gun violence (apparently the spirits here don't believe in the long-used mantra of "guns don't kill people...people kill people").

Even the presence of Mirren can't do much beyond classing up the joint a bit, but this really comes off as a missed opportunity. Perhaps with a different storytelling approach, this might have worked better. As it stands, this "Winchester" ends up as something of a misfire. It rates as a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 1, 2018 / Posted February 1, 2018

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