dir Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
scr Tom Vaughan, Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
prd Tim McGahan, Brett Tomberlin
with Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Angus Sampson, Finn Scicluna-O'Prey, Eamon Farren, Laura Brent, Tyler Coppin, Thor Carlsson, Dawayne Jordan, Emm Wiseman, Alice Chaston
release US/UK 2.Feb.18
18/Australia 1h39
Something's murky: Clarke and Mirren

snook sampson
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Winchester Saying this is "inspired by actual events" is pushing it. This scary movie owes more to The Woman in Black than to the true story of Sarah Winchester, the rifle company heiress who spent 40 years building a crazy mansion to appease the spirits of those killed by family-made firearms. While the film has its moments, most of the jolts are of the super-cheap variety, which makes the weapons-are-bad commentary seem pushy.

In 1906, Sarah (Mirren) is being challenged for control of the family business, with Dr Price (Clarke) send to verify that she's lost her marbles. He arrives at her constantly in-construction house in San Jose, greeted by a couple of eerily stoic butlers (Farren and Coppin) as well as Sarah's niece Marion (Snook) and young son (Scicluna-O'Prey), whose fiery hair and milky eyes are surely signs of ghostly possession. Even with the 24-hour clatter of the builders, there's quite a lot going bump in the night, which begins to freak-out non-believer Price.

The script is a web of plot contrivances that curl back on each other in an attempt to send chills up the spine. But it's silly rather than scary. Price's back-story, as it emerges, is both cheesy and ludicrous, while Sarah's know-it-all pronouncements become unintentionally comical. Even as the supernatural mayhem escalates (encompassing the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to add extra destruction), the Spierig brothers struggle to generate much in the way of tension.

The cast is certainly up for it, arching eyebrows at every opportunity. Mirren has a lot of fun with Sarah's imperious attitude and creepy-widow vibe, drifting merrily into camp nuttiness as the spirits use her to design her crazy house. Clarke adds nicely haunted (!) texture as the laudanum addict unsure if what he's seeing is a hallucination or worse. And Snook makes the most of her thankless role as a woman unclear just why her son seems to be in need of an exorcist. Obviously, she doesn't watch any movies.

And this is the problem: genre fans will struggle to find anything original or genuinely frightening in here. The best jolts are merely loud music and glimpses of something nasty-ish. The lighting is mercilessly murky, the sets badly cluttered. And the script is a river of corny cliches that give everything an odd predictability. Even so, as an undemanding, largely non-digitally tweaked ghost story that's loosely based on real people and places, there's some fun to be had.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 2.Feb.18

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© 2018 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall