Even the most tepid gothic thriller can be “original,” and “Winchester” qualifies: Set in 1906, it’s the first (and probably the last) ghost story to be haunted by the spirit of gun control. Helen Mirren, taking a paycheck role but incapable of slumming (or, at least, incapable of doing so without giving it her all), plays the real-life historical character Sarah Winchester, the turn-of-the-century California widow whose late husband, William Wirt Winchester, left her a 50 percent stake in the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. Mirren, her silver hair swirled into a Victorian bun, a black crepe dress buttoned up to her neck, speaks in an American accent, with a voice of calmly possessed clarity. Sarah sees ghosts everywhere, but she isn’t scared of them. She wants to help them. They’re the spirits of people killed by those dastardly rifles her husband invented.
The way that she helps them is to never, ever stop building rooms onto her sprawling San Jose mansion, a colossal gray Victorian with teal trim and red roofs. To say that she’s renovating the seven-story, 100-room structure wouldn’t do the project justice — the house is metastasizing. Carpenters work on it round-the-clock, sawing and hammering all night long, and the place is a loopy labyrinth of alcoves and walkways and boxy carved chambers. It’s like a cozy bed-and-breakfast the size of Xanadu, as designed by M.C. Escher. The point of all this labor is to give the ghosts a place to come and heal. But some of the spirits don’t cooperate. They’re so testy they need to be locked away, sealed into their rooms with 13 nails.
The Winchester Mystery House, as it’s known, is a legendary tourist attraction (according to San Jose folklore, it really is said to be haunted by the ghosts of people killed by Winchester rifles). But in “Winchester,” Sarah’s paranormal real-estate fetishism is more than a wealthy widow’s eccentricity — it’s a compassionate gesture offered to the victims of gun violence. The board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co., however, thinks she’s gone around the bend, and are using that as an excuse to take away her stake.
To accomplish this, they hire a dissolute physician, Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), to move in and do a psychiatric evaluation of her; basically, they pay him to declare her mentally unstable. What they don’t count on is that Price is a laudanum addict haunted by visions of his late wife, who killed herself (yes) with a gunshot. The movie’s villain, meanwhile, is the melty-faced, vengeful Jack-in-the-box spirit of a Confederate corporal whose brothers were killed by Union soldiers. “Winchester” is the supernatural-schlock version of a liberal think-tank paper. It says, “Look at all the ways guns can kill — and turn people into ghosts.”
Sarah may not be crazy, but the film seems slightly nuts. It was directed and co-written by Michael and Peter Spierig, the German-Australian filmmaking brothers who made the showy, overblown “Daybreakers” (2014) as well as the recent torture-porn sequel “Jigsaw,” and they’re trying, for once, to be “restrained.” But that just means that there’s drawing-room dialogue between Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren that sounds like it came out of a Vincent Price movie; mostly, it’s there to break up the routine ghostly shock cuts. Mirren does all she can to look like she’s having fun, but “Winchester” isn’t a movie about acting. It’s an empty grab bag of a spook show in which the Spierig brothers never do figure out a way to turn the Winchester Mystery House into an exhilarating movie set. It’s more like a hardwood maze that traps us.