It’s weird how the fortunes of a genre can changed. Just a few years ago, horror was maligned and in a true dark age for the genre. It got so bad that we hailed the Paranormal Activity movie when it came out. That’s how desperate we got for something with the slightest bit of creativity. But now things are going great. Every year we seem to get a few horror movies which are truly stunning and also different. It was originally the indie scene that led this rebirth but even the Hollywood studios are making decent horror flicks now. Can Winchester follow this trend?

Eric Price (Jason Clarke, Zero Dark Thirty) is sent to the home of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren, RED) to assess her mental wellbeing to run the Winchester Gun company. She believes she is haunted by the victims of the weapon and Eric soon finds that she is not as crazy as some believe her to be and that the house is actually haunted.

So in essence, this is a haunted house movie. A man who does not believe in the supernatural is sent to house which for plot reasons he cannot leave and soon discovers that the supernatural is fact real. It’s a classic story and that is because of how well it works. But you need a good haunted house for that. From the outside the Winchester looks a bit naff, after all it’s realistic in a way. The house is painted in a way you’d expect it to be painted as and does not look old, decaying and haunted from the outside like you’d expect it. I didn’t realise I’d miss that cliche but I do as it turns out. Inside things are much better. Because the gimmick of this house is that there are hundreds of rooms which are there to keep the spirits locked away, there is an element of confusion which works in the movie’s favour. You can never get your bearings and that at least gives you an unsettling feeling.

However that will be the only praise I give this movie. Because otherwise this is a dull movie with very little interesting in it. The main problem is the lack of scares. This is like the bad old days where the fear does not come from a creepy atmosphere or well built set pieces designed to fill your nightmares but jump scares. Lots of jump scares. Most of them not even being for monsters or ghosts. No, this movie does those false jump scares where it ends up being just a random extra who shows up for the loud part in the music. And it does this so many times that one, you don’t jump for any of it and two, if you do you feel like the movie is mocking you rather than providing an enjoyable experience. That’s not a good feeling to get when you just want to enjoy a film.

I imagine that the directors The Spierig Brothers (Predestination) believed that by hiring good actors like Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren, a class above the usual sort that horror movies get, that they could elevate the material. Well if they can’t, I’m not sure who could as this is well-trodden ground with nothing new to offer. It’s ghosts in a house. What more is there to say? They don’t do anything other than to do the odd bit of possession, usually of children as that is meant to be creepier, and popping up to try and get a cheap scare. It’s quite pathetic really what this movie tries to do to scare you in age where we have movies which can glue people to their seats with fear.

But what are Clarke and Mirren actually given to do? Well nothing that you haven’t seen before. Clarke’s defining character trait is that he does not believe in this supernatural stuff. He is as bland as white bread with his dialogue only being useful because it pushes the plot forward in some way. He is whatever the script needs him to be to keep the moving going. And Mirren is just the creepy old lady. The one that for too long discusses everything in metaphors and refuses to answer any questions with concrete answers because again, thats serves the plot better. These are not real people, even if they were based on real people, they are just constructs that exist because they make the plot work. Sort of.

And you can’t really expect either Clarke or Mirren to do well with this sort of script. I find Clarke to be the sort of actor who matches the material given to him so here he is as boring and bland as the script is. There is very little range of emotion and you sort of forget he’s there even though he’s in pretty much every scene. It’s an impressive feat really when you think about it. Mirren though is caught in two minds. At times you can feel her wanting to go full nutcase and chew all the scenery in the room but something, most likely the directors trying to keep this a serious movie, keeps her from doing that. And it’s a shame. This movie was a complete loss to begin with, why not allow Mirren to go completely batshit and chew all the scenery, there is plenty of it after all. It would at least make the film interesting.

Instead Winchester harkens back to the dark days of horror where it was all so bad and so boring. It does not even try to have a scary atmosphere or anything that will have you hiding behind your sofa, it thinks that cheap scares are enough for a memorable experience. In that dark age you may have got away with this, heck things were so bad that this might have been seen as one of the better ones in the genre, but nowadays we are awash with great horror movies to watch so we don’t need this boring piece of rubbish.

Former Head of Movies for Screen Critics. Film Reviews now hosted on Medium.