Released without fanfare or publicity screenings, the haunted-house movie “Winchester” would seem to lack the confidence of its makers. One soon sees why: Despite the typically elevating presence of Helen Mirren, this super-silly feature (the fifth from Australian brothers Peter and Michael Spierig) stubbornly resists being classed up.
Set in 1906 and inspired by actual events (liberally sauced with myth and legend), the story centers on the eccentric Sarah Winchester (Mirren, grimly determined), heiress to the rifle fortune and eager dabbler in architecture and spiritualism. Believing that she has flourished on the deaths caused by her late husband’s invention, Sarah atones by constructing a vast and ever-changing mansion, whose hundreds of rooms are intended to imprison evil spirits or encourage benign ones to move on.
Enter Dr. Price (Jason Clarke), a psychologist hired by the Winchester company’s board to count Sarah’s marbles and report back. Conveniently addicted to laudanum, Price is soon staggering around the labyrinthine structure, besieged by generic scares: a creepy butler, a rattling armoire, a child in the grip of milky-eyed possession. The Hogwarts-like domicile might be swarming with staff and construction workers, but not until Price arrives do the spirits hit the fan.
Written by the Spierigs and Tom Vaughan, the script is as batty and clichéd as its heroine. The house (you can take a tour of the real one in San Jose) never feels like a single space, as ho-hum apparitions appear and disappear without a trace. Mirren and her representatives are probably hoping the movie will do likewise.