Combustible Celluloid
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With: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Angus Sampson, Eamon Farren, Laura Brent, Finn Scicluna-O'Prey, Bruce Spence
Written by: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig, Tom Vaughan
Directed by: Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, drug content, some sexual material and thematic elements
Running Time: 99
Date: 02/02/2018

Winchester (2018)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Rifle Trifle

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Believers in ghosts in the Bay Area probably looked forward to the new movie Winchester — which opened Friday in theaters — more than anyone else in the world.

After all, it's a movie 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 the 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 truth.

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%). 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 most conventional "scary" makeup, and the most unimaginative jump-scares, 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 Ms. 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 great, 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.

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