Buy, Stream, or Bury: ‘Winchester’


My introduction to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California came as an excited 20-year-old geek on a guided tour of the mansion and its strange and spooky rooms, once commissioned by the widowed heiress Sarah Winchester to appease the souls of those expired by her husband’s notorious creation: the Winchester rifle — “The Gun That Won the West.”

Built in 1884, construction on the Winchester mansion, according to lore, never seized until Sarah’s death in 1922 — topping at seven stories before being leveled to four by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The property is believed to be haunted to this day. With most of its corridors, stairways, and nooks leading to ceilings, walls, and falls — haunted or not, it’s genuinely creepy.

It’s also fascinating. Sarah Winchester was real and she built this place. Why would she do that? Was she nuts? Driven by the supernatural? Was it bad OCD?  I didn’t see ghost during my visit and the tour doesn’t allow guests to explore the house freely, but the experience was nonetheless unforgettable and left me curious for more.


Helmed by the Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers, Jigsaw), Winchester is Lionsgate shot at the infamous ghost story — now available on DVD and Blu-ray. I could not have been more excited to see it.

Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren stars as the widow Sarah Winchester, dignified in her dread and formidable despite her emotional and physical frailty. Jason Clarke plays Eric Price, a drug-addled San Francisco shrink hired by the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. to assess and declare Sarah bonkers so to repeal her stake in the company.


The task appears to be an easy payday for Price (he can be bought for a price!), who seems to be losing a fight with demons of his own: drugs and depression. He feels he’s a fraud and a failure. Having experienced tremendous loss and blaming himself for it, he’s empathetic to the old woman’s sorrow and guilt, but dismissive of her ghost stories — despite the strange goings-on he soon begins to witness while at the mansion, including a somnambulant Sarah feverishly scribbling plans for new rooms in the seance quarters of the home.

The hundreds of rooms, Sarah explains, are designed to give the spirits closure and are demolished once they move on. Malevolent souls are imprisoned in their rooms with 13 nails (Sarah was said to be fixated on the number 13, i.e. stairways had 13 steps, chandeliers 13 arms, etc). The widow fears the angry ghosts are getting stronger and worries for the remaining family in her care, including her great nephew, who has proven vulnerable to a new evil. She knows Price briefly died after being shot by a Winchester rifle — a tragic event that haunts him still — and is eager to gain any insight the experience may have given him into the realm of dead.

“Instruments of death have a powerful connection to the after-world,” Sarah says, alluding to the refurbished bullet Price carries with him in his pocket — a memento of a loss worse than life and a foreshadowing to the twist that will help the widow face the sinister spirit seizing her family in retribution for his death and that of his brothers — victims on the wrong side of the American Civil War.


Mirren is a delight to watch as Sarah Winchester, especially when going toe-to-toe with Clarke during Sarah’s initial assessment meetings. Clarke as Price is tragically affable, conveying his grief and uneasiness around the widow’s superstitions; his annoyance at her attempt to make him an ally, unaware of what she knows about his heartbreaking past. These are the most enjoyable scenes in the movie and set the stage for some high-brow horror.

Unfortunately, Winchester is a film that feels like it wants to take its time, but is also in a hurry to get to the next jump scare — they plague the film from its very start up until we meet Casper the Confederate ghost. The Winchester mansion, and its potentially terrifying labyrinth of lamenting souls and dead ends, is regrettably regulated to window dressing for just another possession flick. In short, Winchester is what you’d expect from a second or third sequel in franchise that’s gone straight-to-video — somewhat enjoyable with adjusted expectations.

Noteworthy on Winchester DVD and Blu-ray formats is the bonus featurette, “Driven by the Spirits: The Making of Winchester.” It provides interesting tidbits on Sarah Winchester and the mansion’s architecture — set design was pretty remarkable. It also includes interviews with Mirren, Clarke, and the Spierig Brothers — who discuss their approach to the film, cluing us in to why things may have turned out as they did.

Clatto says: Stream it.

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