“Winchester” fails the most basic test in filmmaking — it is less interesting, less engaging and less enjoyable than staring at a blank screen for one hour and 39 minutes.
Any movie, no matter how bad, should at least meet that smallest and most generous of standards. It’d be egregious to fail there under ordinary circumstances.
But to do so when given the extra benefit of casting Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke and having a splendid horror movie premise that takes viewers inside the Winchester Mystery House ... well, that’s a special kind of abysmal.
Yet here we are considering a film that should be, at worst, a diverting piece of gothic entertainment and is instead an exercise in mind-numbing tedium.
The filmmakers are the Spierig Brothers — Michael and Peter — who have something of a track record when it comes to visually-driven genre cinema. They’ve made affecting stylistic diversions in the vampire movie “Daybreakers” and the sci-fi time-traveling story “Predestination.”
But they’ve completely abandoned the basic principles of entertainment in “Winchester,” and the result is a haunted house movie in which the characters mostly sit and talk about hauntings in hushed, restrained tones, as a smattering of predictable jump-scares dot the landscape.
Mirren plays Sarah Winchester, widow of the arms tycoon William Winchester, seen circa 1906 building room upon room in her San Jose, California, estate in perpetuity. She is compelled to do so by her belief that the many souls killed by Winchester firearms have cursed her and her family and that her only hope for safety is to trap them in the mansion. Clarke’s Dr. Eric Price is hired by the company to assess her sanity.
Everything about the movie is flat — the cinematography presents the house as an abundantly ordinary collection of rooms, rather than a maze-like window into a haunted mind. The actors seem barely cognizant, coasting along for a paycheck. The scares are lazy — apparitions popping up at the most expected moments. It’s excruciating.