By Bill Wine

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — For anyone who thought that you’d never read the words “Helen Mirren” and “horror movie” in the same sentence, think again.

Which brings us to Winchester – described at the top as “inspired by actual events,” but hardly “inspired.”

Oscar winner Mirren stars in this supernatural horror drama as Sarah Winchester, the widow of storied gun manufacturer William Winchester.

Between her husband’s sudden death and the earlier death of their child, Sarah is overwhelmingly grief-stricken.

With her $20-million inheritance from her husband’s lucrative business, the eccentric heiress declares that she is haunted by the ghosts of those whose deaths came at the hands of Winchester weapons, especially the repeating rifle.

So she seeks the advice of a medium and then, in 1906, plans the building of an enormous Victorian mansion in San Jose, California, an attraction that would eventually become a tourist trap dubbed “The Winchester Mystery House.”

2 Movie Review: Winchester

(2 stars out of 4)

So this is a ghost story/haunted house hoohah, written (along with Tom Vaughan) and directed by the Spierig Brothers, Aussies Michael and Peter (Predestination, Daybreakers, Undead).

But the creators seem to care so much more about the jump scares – frequent, obligatory, predictable, generic, and ineffective as they are – than they do the narrative or the major characters.

Consequently, we tune out most of what’s going on and misplace our emotional investment in the characters, which is minimal anyway.

Mirren – with her Best Actress Oscar for The Queen and three other nominations having long since secured her artistic reputation – does what she can with the sketchy character she has to work with, but to no avail.

That’s because the film, in terms of screen time and focus, belongs to Jason Clarke as the painkiller-addicted psychiatrist hired by the corporation board, in an effort to wrest control from the imposing Sarah, to diagnose the title character’s mental state and hopefully declare her mad.

Unfortunately, Clarke gives such a charmless performance that we have nowhere to turn for comfort.

Of course, to be fair, the script does Clarke no favors by holding off critical information about him until it’s too late to win us over on his behalf.

At any rate, we wait in vain for the screenplay to address the buried theme of death-producing rifles and gun control; instead, the narrative progresses in fits and starts toward the shooting spree we know must be coming.

It may not be the case that an actress of Mirren’s stature is simply slumming, not exactly. But to describe Dame Helen here as underemployed is to understate the case.

So we’ll haunt 2 stars out of 4. A things-that-go-bump-in-the-night-mare, Winchester spends so much of its time simply saying “Boo” that that’s what we end up wanting to do.

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