The elephant in the room first: a schlocky haunted house movie with Helen Mirren is peculiar; a schlocky haunted house movie with Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke is so peculiar that it goes back around to promising. Because maybe one of them just made a bad choice for a paycheck, but both of them, simultaneously?

Yes, in fact. Winchester, the schlocky haunted house movie in question, is at least non-horrendous, which is perhaps as much as one could reasonably ask for. But it's still pretty damn flimsy stuff, the latest haunted house movie in the venerable "sort of Insidious except so much worse" mold. This time, the generic-ass jump scares and moist-looking ghosts have been dressed up with the ol' "inspired by actual events" gambit. The film takes place at what a concluding title card (as well as the ad campaign), defiantly claims to be America's most haunted house: the Winchester Mystery House of San Jose, California, an erratic heap of architectural oddities built under the personal direction of Sarah Winchester (Mirren) between 1884 and 1922. What the hell Mrs. Winchester was up to is anybody's guess, but the most persistent rumor since her own lifetime was that she was convinced that she and her family was cursed by the legacy of the Winchester rifle, the highly effective and deadly firearm from which her late husband earned his massive fortune. The house, according to this rumor, was designed to house all of the restless souls of the rifle's victims, or some other similar variant depending on which version of the legend you're hearing told.

Issues of taste aside, it's a substantial enough bit of modern folklore about a location of such astounding, unmatched visual character, that the only real surprise is that it's taken until 2018 for somebody to make a movie about the house and Winchester's belief in the curse. Though I shouldn't hedge with words like "belief". While a movie about a woman consumed by grief and guilt, and with enough limitless money for her madness to be redefined as "eccentricity" might have been interesting, and would surely have been a more sensible role for Mirren, there'd be little chance of Winchester coming into being if it didn't depict real ghosts plaguing the dozens and dozens of rooms of the polyglot mansion.

And so, the idea that Sarah Winchester might not be in her right mind is presented as nothing more than the get-you-in-the-door plot hook. In April 1906, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company board of directors hires San Francisco doctor Eric Price (Clarke) to adjudge Sarah's mental capacity, with the clear understanding that his paycheck hinges on coming back with a sober-minded finding of "crazy as a shithouse rat". Thus the good doctor, who has his own instability to deal with (a personal tragedy that gets revealed by inches has driven him into the comfortingly hallucinogenic bosom of laudanum; also the comforting bosoms of the many San Francisco women to whom he prescribes the same drug), treks up to San Jose. Here, he immediately starts seeing all kinds of disfigured ghosts with milky white eyes - none of this frou-frou "slow and steady build-up of tension" for Winchester! - but he writes these off as laudanum hallucinations, and goes on about the business of being mildly confused by the layout of the house and the sullen behavior of the people who live there: Sarah Winchester, and also her widowed niece Marion Mariott (Sarah Snook) and Marion's son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey), the latter of whom has a bad case of being a guileless child prone to becoming the vessel for an angry demon.

The biggest problem with Wincester, in all ways, is that it's a giant waste. A waste of Mirren, of course (and now that I'm stopping to think about it, Mirren has had a really shitty time of it in the 2010s, hasn't she?), and an even bigger waste of Clarke: Mirren is just sleepwalking through a role that doesn't challenge her one iota, but Clarke seems to be laboring under the impression that he can make the movie interesting by foregrounding his character's pain and stubborn rationalism, and so gives the substantially better of the film's two lead performances. It's a waste of a pretty decent concept: without getting into the ins and outs of how this film conceives of Sarah Winchester's ghost-hunting plan, the film at least presents a fairly intriguing mythology for how hauntings "work". It's enough of a wrinkle to the form that there could certainly have been something interesting here, and yet the screenwriters, Tom Vaughn and brothers Michael & Peter Spierig (the brothers also direct), have so blithely larded the film up with the most tawdrily clichéd haunting scenes and jump scares! It's a film that telegraphs everything to within an inch of its life, and except for one decent moment involving a mirror, the actual scare, when it arrives, is almost invariably less interesting than the one that was telegraphed. It's not the Spierig's first time making a film that had a much better concept than execution - I have neither forgotten nor forgiven their 2009 Daybreakers - but it seems odd that the execution would be this lazy. Oh, and speaking of the Spierigs: it's a waste of Sarah Snook, so extraordinary in the brothers' best film, 2014's Predestination, who gets one excellent scene in a basement near the end that suggests that this whole movie might have been redeemed by centering it around her character, rather than just leaving her as the pasty figure who glides into rooms, looking nervous.

Far above and beyond everything, it's a waste of a tremendous location. The Winchester Mystery House is an intrinsically good location to set a horror film, with its tangle of inexplicable halls and doors and stairs, and while the movie set is clearly a set - the camera crew couldn't fit in the actual house, not that I imagine the house's current owners would sign off on having it turn apart by movie people regardless - it's a set that has been assembled with all due care, though it's a bit too airy to feel properly haunted. And then a set that has been completely buggered by the filmmakers: in a location whose fame comes from the very fact that its interior is confusing and almost inhuman in its layout, virtually nothing trades on this fact, other than a few lines of dialogue and a couple of puzzled looks from Clarke. There's never the "run around, oh God, I'm lost" sequence that would, I'd have assumed, be the primary reason for making this movie in the first place. It's just a cluttered Victorian building, nothing more or less.

That is the most galling of the film's sins (though it's mindless paint-by-numbers approach to staging scare sins is probably the most fatal), and everything else is just kicking it while it's down. The flat, wannabe-tragic characterisations, the shamelessly loud score (composed by Peter Spierig himself), the peculiar tendency to seriously over-lighting things, in a haunted house movie, the uncertainty with which the film stabs at 1900s California speaking styles; these things are merely gilding the mediocre lily. The garish suggestion that angry ghosts caused the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; this is horrifyingly crass enough that it could have almost made the film fun-bad, if only it were more openly incompetent and kitschy, instead of polished and buffed enough to be boring. It's like, totally functional by the standards of modern cinematic ghost stories - not good, but functional. Not scary either, but if for whatever imaginable reason, the thing you've wanted your whole life is to see Helen Mirren wearing a floor-length black veil and talking in a whispery voice about spirits while having trances, Winchester sure does provide that thing.