It’s unclear exactly who in the audience is supposed to love “Winchester,” other than the cinematic lottery winners working at the Winchester Mystery House.
Although it isn’t a top-flight horror movie — too slow for thrill-chasers, too ridiculously fictionalized for historians — the film serves as a proper 99-minute commercial for that San Jose tourist spot.
“The silver chandeliers were imported from Germany,” a character in the house explains early on, as if she’s forgotten she’s in a film set in 1906 and thinks she is working as a tour guide on summer break from De Anza College.
Like the spirits in the senseless corridors of Sarah Winchester’s never-ending Victorian construction project, the movie is stuck in its own limbo. It’s not an atrocious film — far worse productions have been screened in advance for critics. (This movie wasn’t, ominously.) It just can’t pick a side. Does it want to be a haunted fun house full of jump scares? Does it want to be a Gothic period piece with a romantic message? “Winchester” is both, and neither.
The film begins with a San Francisco doctor (Jason Clarke), sent to the sprawling house by horse and carriage to assess the mental condition of the Winchester gun heiress, who thinks she’s been cursed by the victims of her weapons. It doesn’t take long to establish that yes, in fact, there are evil spirits in the house. No mystery there. The undead are popping out of closets and materializing in mirrors like Hell had the Winchester Mystery House on a Groupon.
“Winchester” stars Helen Mirren, which normally would be the first thing we’d mention. But frankly, she’s not making much of an effort. She acts as if she knows she’s in a bad film and doesn’t want to call attention to herself. Someone with a little less to lose (Debra Winger? Elizabeth Perkins? Nicolas Cage?) might have taken the role over the top, injecting some much-needed intentional humor.
The lack of fun is a big issue throughout the film. “Winchester” is directed by the stylish Spierig twins, Peter and Michael, who made the scrappy Ethan Hawke vampire film “Daybreakers” in 2010. They have a history of having a hand in everything — working on visual effects and the musical score.
And yet they can’t settle on a tone. Even the scares, too infrequent for this type of film, have a consistent misdirection that becomes tired and predictable. The ending tries to be thoughtful, but there’s not enough investment in these characters to care.
The movie is a modestly budgeted yet visually polished product. There are several small touches that work, such as the half-possessed yet still professional demeanor of the wait staff, particularly actors Eamon Farren and Tyler Coppin. (The latter had a brief role in “The Road Warrior.”)
The Spierig brothers are from Australia and work out of Melbourne, which means they created a fake Winchester Mystery House interior pretty much on the opposite side of the world. It’s just fine. You can build a good stairway going to nowhere with Aussie carpenters, and there is a lot of second unit work at the actual landmark in San Jose. Stick around for the credits to applaud the four-person team that piloted drones with cameras over the house.
But in covering that great distance, the filmmakers somehow lost the thing that makes the Winchester Mystery House entertaining enough for decades of tourists, thrill-seeking residents and class field trips to return.
It’s not about being scared sober. It’s about leaving with a smile on your face.