In 1886, Sarah Winchester moved from her home in New Haven, CT into a two-story farmhouse in San Jose. The widow of William Wirt Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company—the manufacturer of firearms—she had inherited a fifty-percent ownership of the company and over $20.5 million, so she was wealthy, but she had also lost her infant daughter and only child to a children’s disease called marasmus.
According to published accounts, a medium, who had allegedly been channeling Sarah’s husband at the time, told her to make the move west for a specific reason: to build a residence not just for herself, but for the ghosts of those who died from Winchester rifles. Thus began the creation of one of the strangest houses ever built.
Today the mansion is known as the Winchester Mystery House. It takes up 24,000 square feet of space (puny in comparison with the William Hearst Castle further south along the California coast), with 160 rooms, at a price of $5 million. Here’s a live walkthrough of the house from last April.
Was the house haunted? Rooms were added to it, day and night, until Sarah’s death in 1922 because, the story goes, she believed in the presence of ghosts, and the rooms held them at bay. The truth is much more mundane, but that hasn’t stopped speculation over the house’s supernatural connection, and a few years ago, Hollywood took a stab at telling the story.
Winchester doesn’t tread new ground in horror cinema, but it’s classier than most, thanks largely to the presence of Helen Mirren as the titular widow. In an original screenplay written (with Tom Vaughan) and directed by the Spierig Brothers, Sarah’s competence is challenged by the WRAC, who send Jason Clarke, playing a doctor, in to determine whether she’s sane enough to still be co-owner.
The film relies too much on jump-scares and only scratches the surface of the wider issues of profiting from weapons manufacture. It also has elements of other horror flicks: The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, The Omen, etc.
I remember wanting to see this when it initially came out. The mediocre reviews kept me away, but it’s not terrible. Clarke, the guy from Zero Dark Thirty, holds his own opposite Mirren nicely, and Sarah Snook is good as Mirren’s niece.
If nothing else, Winchester got me interested in the real-life elements behind the story, which are fascinating in and of themselves.
Other movies about houses:
The 1936 picture Charlie Chan's Secret has a plot involving phony mediums and an eccentric senior citizen millionaire who has constructed a house of angles for ghosts. Was the Winchester mansion coincidence or inspiration?ReplyDelete
Wow. I’d have to see that one. It’s not listed under the “in popular culture” section on the Wikipedia page for “Winchester Mystery House,” if that matters.ReplyDelete
You've convinced me to check this one out, I do like Helen Mirren and ghost stories. Thanks for joining our blogathon and I'd love you to join my Joan Collins blogathon if you haven't already...ReplyDelete
I have. Check your list again.ReplyDelete
Good review of a film that should have been better.ReplyDelete
I felt disappointed after viewing the film, but Helen mirren is always entertaining.
I might’ve gone to see it theatrically if I knew a little more about it, though I’m glad I waited.Delete
I've seen this twice and while it's not an amazing ghost story, you are right in that Helen Mirren elevates it. She gives it her all.ReplyDelete
She’s not in it that much, but she’s always worth watching.Delete
Was not aware that this was based on a true story until your informative article! I love Helen Mirren, so now I absolutely must see this one!ReplyDelete
The real-life story is quite fascinating. Be sure to click on that link to the walk-through of the house.ReplyDelete
I went to this house when I was ten years old and we lived in the East Bay. It's funny, but the staff still play up the ghostly aspects of the house and all the weirdness. I'd like to see the film just to see how they treat Mrs. Winchester. Thanks again for joining the blogathon--this was a great review!ReplyDelete
The movie makes good use of the Winchester House. Sarah is presented realistically, I think: obsessed, yes, but mad? Not really.Delete
I didn't care for the movie (it's a bit of a mess), but Helen Mirren is always great! :)ReplyDelete
No argument there.ReplyDelete
This sounds like a really interesting tale – both the film and the actual events.ReplyDelete
It is, though I wish the truth behind the mystery hadn’t been uncovered as soon as it had been. The mystery makes for a better story.ReplyDelete