Despite the always-welcome presence of Mirren, this haunted-house film is a flop
“Winchester” isn’t really a movie; it’s more like the ghost of one — a thing that goes bump in the night but is entirely forgotten by morning. Helen Mirren, who I devoutly hope was paid quite handsomely for her labors, stars as Sarah Winchester, a widow and heir to the Winchester gun fortune. Distraught over the toll taken by the business that made her rich, she’s busily atoning by ever-expanding her already vast California mansion, with work crews busy day and night creating rooms in which ghosts can reside. Unfortunately, they seem to be residing in her niece’s young son (a personality-free kid whose eyeballs have a way of suddenly turning white, like ghoulish marbles), and in the random single roller skates that keep zipping around the house, as if looking for a roller disco that isn’t there. A doctor (Jason Clarke) — hopped up on laudanum, in which the audience might soon wish to partake — turns up to evaluate Sarah’s sanity. Ghosts are confronted, weird things happen involving cabinetry, the 1906 earthquake makes a cameo appearance, and eventually the movie doesn’t so much end but just stops, as if it loses interest in itself. (Long after you will.)
Having opened in theaters Feb. 2 with little fanfare and no advance screenings, “Winchester” is, of course, inspired by the true story of what’s now known as the Winchester Mystery House. There’s no doubt that the life of the real Sarah Winchester — who we see at the end, in a haunting, blurry photo — would make a fascinating film. But this movie, whose script seems to be written on somebody’s lunch break, isn’t it. (Most of it was filmed on soundstages in Australia, though a few scenes do depict the actual house.) Mirren, ever the pro, gives an elegantly restrained performance — we sense Sarah’s fear more than we see it — and watching her expertly wrangle her Victorian widow’s veil is a pleasure. But you watch “Winchester” thinking about the movie that might have been, and wishing that those ghosts would transport Mirren into that movie, immediately.