'Winchester' shoots blanks (MOVIE REVIEW)

Phil on Film

TUCSON, Ariz. - Guns don't kill people. Ghosts don't kill people. Guns with ghosts, though -- now THAT is a combination to look out for, according to the bizarre yet insipidly entertaining "Winchester."

You never quite know whether to laugh, scream or cry at the weirdness that "Winchester" slaps on screen. Maybe it's best appreciated in the manner of the landmark curiosity on which it's based, the Winchester Mystery House. Just gawk, scratch your head and dismiss it with a "Whatever. You do you."

You have to hand it to Helen Mirren for keeping it together during the production of this shoddy, slapdash production, which no doubt resembled the haphazard construction process that created a mansion with staircases leading to dead ends and interior windows facing into hallways.

Mirren's measured, simmering performance as troubled heiress Sarah Winchester does what it can to ground the increasingly exasperating film. Winchester was a possibly mentally disturbed multimillionaire haunted by the deaths of her husband and child, obsessed with tacking rooms onto her increasingly monstrous home near the turn over a period of several decades near the turn of the 20th century.

Jason Clarke plays a doctor hired by the Winchester company -- which Sarah still controls -- to evaluate her sanity. To do so, he has to stay several nights in the haunted house, which Sarah says is plagued by ghosts of victims slain by Winchester rifles.

These are certainly the most brand-conscious ghosts to ever live. Who knew that after your spirit is dispatched to the great beyond at the barrel of the gun that the first concern was doubling back to check out the label on the handle? 

You would think that ghosts who blamed a firearms manufacturer for their deaths would be slow to fill out their NRA memberships, but these ghosts pack more heat than a backwoods militia. They pepper victims with gunshots -- it's never really clear whether the guns are real or are special-issue ghost guns -- and are vulnerable to gunshots themselves.

And they are so devoted to the Winchester line of products, they even dive deep into the company catalogue to find yet another project with which to torment the living -- roller skates. No joke. On more than one occasion, the ghosts send roller skates careening across the room in an effort to creep out victims. After a while, they get bored of that flight of fancy and go back to the guns.

Winchester, like many horror films, proclaims to be "based on true events," so we are safe to assume that everything depicted on screen happened exactly that way in real life. If so, reality shows like the "Ghost Hunters" of the world are selling us short. In "Winchester" logic, face-offs with the spirit world are "Ghostbusters"-like shootouts, complete with video game-style final bosses.

Someday, when Mirren receives a lifetime achievement award, there will be a montage of her performances in great films. "Winchester" will not be a part of that montage.

RATING: 2 stars out of 4.

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