Extremely effective ghost story about the real life Winchester House, well told with a class cast and a pleasantly unexpected underlying thesis.



I truly believe that God puts people in your life that you need when you need them. It can be as small as a smile from a stranger when you are feeling blue or directions from a police officer when you are lost in a bad neighborhood or as significant as a chance encounter with someone who will become your lifelong friend.

In my case it was two obnoxious fellow moviegoers during Winchester. You see, it so happened that the night that worked best for my schedule for one of the scariest movies I have seen in a while, was the one night when NO one, because of either opportunity or preference, could go with me.

Winchester’s story is based upon the real house in San Jose which was built and rebuilt during a 38 year construction marathon by the heiress to 50% of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company fortune. Sarah Winchester inherited the today equivalent of a half billion dollars with a continuous income of $25,000 per day. She put this vast wealth to use in moving from New Haven, Connecticut to San Jose, California where she purchased and remodeled an unfinished farm house into a seven story mansion with 161 rooms, 2 ballrooms, 47 fireplaces, three cutting edge elevators and rare indoor conveniences for the era like forced air heating and indoor plumbing. An innovative floating foundation preserved the house from collapse after the devastating 1906 earthquake. In addition to these far thinking aspects to the house, and working without an architect, Sarah Winchester designed the home to     very peculiar specifications, sporting staircases which go nowhere    , rooms with windows which open into other rooms or  into the floor, labrynthian hallways which double back on themselves, a door which open to the outside from the third floor (think Roger Rabbit),  spiderweb motiffs,   groups of 13 items wherever possible and other bizarre features which seem to make no sense. Discount Hogwarts without benefit of movement in the staircases or animated portraits.

However, there are house ghosts.

The premise strives to explain the reason for the unique construction – that Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) built rooms to replicate those in which the "victims" of the Winchester rifle died, attract them to their room, then help them move on. She acts as sort of an afterlife psychotherapist – thnk the little lady in Poltergeist. After which, Sarah tears down the room and builds anew with a new tenant in mind. In this way she hopes to appease the angry dead and protect her niece and great-nephew Henry from their wrath.  Into this odd scenario comes Eric Price, a traumatized and opium addicted LIVING human psychotherapist (Jason "War for the Planet of the Apes" Clarke), a doctor who is unable to heal himself, hired by the Board of the Winchester Company to prove Sarah Winchester unfit to control her half of the Winchester stock. Although a wackier plot would be hard to find, the inimitable Dame Helen Mirren sells it with gusto and the director/scriptwriters, twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, do a good job of creating convincing back stories and atmosphere which make this all fit.

At this point I'm going to make a shameless fangirl plug for Dame Helen.

I have been following her career since I first saw her as Morgana in Excalibur and have loved everything I have seen her in since. (Please note the knight Mirren is holding hands with is an equally young Liam Neeson.) Some beautiful young women, if they are lucky, become handsome older women. Dame Helen stayed, simply, beautiful. I have seen her in really great movies and some truly tatty ones, but she always brings style, grace and skill to every transfigurative role she chooses.  (2010) (Fate of the Furious)(Gosford Park(Hitchcock) (The Madness of King George(National Treasure 2(The Queen(Raising Helen(Red) (as Prospera, in a female version of The Tempest

She is even teaching a Master Class in acting which is publically available online. AND a friend of mine once sought her out early in her career for an interview for the paper at which he was working. While refused, the refusal was in person…so he did get to meet her….. so that gives me only two degrees of separation, RIGHT????

One of the things I especially liked about the movie, Winchester, was the way the writers-Spierig kept us up in the air as to what is really going on. Is Eric having opium and withdrawal induce hallucinations or is he really in commune with the dead? Is Sarah just a batty old lady or is she really constructing half-way homes for the unquiet deceased? Is the boy truly possessed by an angry ghost or is he traumatized from having seen his abusive alcoholic father die? Was the mansion damaged by the fury of a thwarted poltergeist or did the 1906 earthquake wreck the havoc?

  The Winchester Mansion does exist and it really was severely damaged in 1906 – rending it from its pinnacle of seven stories down to its current four. Construction stopped the day Sarah Winchester died in 1922, afterwhich it was leased in 1923 and eventually purchased from her niece and heir by John and Mayme Brown, who opened it to public display. Dubbed the Winchester Mystery House by Harry Houdini during a tour in 1924, it is still an attraction to this day.

With set designs featuring beautifully period detail, effectively claustrophobic sets, and enough jump scares to unnerve even Beetlejuice, this movie is quite effective for the task to which it applied itself – namely scaring the living snot out of anyone who sees it.

But at the heart of the movie I found another far gentler theme. That God will send you those you need at just the right time. Without giving away too much, Eric, despite his addiction, self doubt and brokenness, heros up for Sarah’s family. And Sarah, despite her looniness, extreme eccentricities and decidedly peculiar guests, is just the friend Eric needs at this bottomed out moment of his life. In many ways, both save each other from fates arguably worse than death.

And this is when I realized….

You see, when I say I went to the movie by myself, I mean not only did I go with no one, but that the theater I was in was completely empty but for me. Row upon row of vacant seats greeted me and sat staring at my back while I endured half a dozen previews fitting for the main attraction, about demonic possession and murderous games. I was tempted to watch the intro credits with laced fingers. So when two people who failed to understand they were not watching the movie in their living room sat nearby, proceeded to make occasionally loud comments to each other, and texted throughout the movie, neglecting to even turn off the slight pinging sound announcing an incoming response, I was actually quite grateful. Every now and again one NEEDS to have their suspension of disbelief interrupted.

And if the oblivious persons in question just happen to read this blog – thank you – BUT – while your intrusiveness was quite helpful in this one instance……..for the next movie – keep it down and at least turn off the danged chime!!!


There is a lot of violence and, as I have mentioned, jump scares. Though no bad language, there is use of opiates and the presence of prostitutes though no nakedness or activities. So, obviously, I do not recommend this for young teens.

I also recommend AGAINST the movie for anyone theologically unformed or immature. On the one hand, there are no seances and an atheist does come to understand there is an afterlife. On the other, there is no mention of or appeal to God. But there is a lot of vague talk about spirituality and the ability, without reference to Divine assistance, to command and control unclean spirits, which could be very misleading, disquieting, and even dangerously influential to the vulnerable in mind or soul.

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  1. Full disclosure. I'm the individual to whom critic Kathy Barrilleaux refers to tried to seek an interview with Helen Mirren in person and was denied. The reality is a little more prosaic and ugly. I knocked on Mirren's door sometime in the 1970's – a flat she lived in in London's West Kensington. She opened the door and her face had that usual sneer of upper-middle-class British superiority, part of the class system that can make Britain such a wearying and dispiriting place to live if one is not born with a silver spoon in one's mouth. I politely identified myself, and asked her the question I'd been sent to put to her. Her reaction was to say, "F*** off," and slam the door.

    I've never liked the woman since as a person or an actress. She's unbelievably precious about her art. She whipped her clothes off at every opportunity when she was a young and rather beautiful actress, but got increasingly snotty and snobbishg as she got older. Personally I think she's over-rated and way, WAY past her sell by date. The movie I regeret I've not seen because it came out just 48 hours ago but it has been universally panned. The general feeling seemed to be Mirren was woefully miscast, and as the saying goes – phoned her part in.

    It's not a film I'll be seeing. The reviewer Kathy approaches virtually every movie from a religious standpoint of belief. I personally have none, so that approach doesn't work for me. When you read the tale of what this woman does, spending a small fortune that could have been put to much better use, building a house for spirits to enter and reside, you don't wonder people tried to go to court to claim she wasn't a fit person to be handling this kind of dough. So I'd approach a movie like this thinking immediately, "This individual is stark, raving mad. There are no spirits – but if she wanted to help people damaged or killed by Winchester rifles, perhaps it might help if she stopped associsating with the rifle company.

    So I've no real wish to see a movie where the woman is – in my view – a raving religious maniac. I think Kathy's warning about the various rights and wrongs of spirits and possession and exorcism or whatever are utterly academic since known of the above has any basis in reality.

    Add Helen Mirren sleepwalking her way through yet another glamorous older woman part – and one can't help thinking the producers thought her aging glamour might just bring some glitter to this insane project, and this for me was one for the Who Gives A Damn I'll Stay Home and Watch TV, department.

    Helen Mirren is about as attractive, culldly and wholesome as a green Mamba, and in person twice as venomous. She's everything foreigners think is cool, and aristocratic and British, and everything the British think is hypocritical, distant and unbelievably toffee-nosed. I think was 1973 when I met Miss Mirren when she wasn't a pouting, posing feminist, but rather a young and hot actress eager to show off her physical attributes. The Winchester .73 was a famous model of rifle, I'm told. Mirren '73 was a hard-hearted, foul-mouthed nightmare. Time has moved on. Pity Mirren hasn't.

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