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‘Winchester’ review: Helen Mirren’s in the movie, but the real star is the house

Helen Mirren stars as the builder of an eccentric house in "Winchester." / CBS Films / Lionsgate

Construction began on what would become the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, in the late 1800s, when Sarah Winchester, heir to a gun-manufacturing fortune, reportedly decided to build a home for the ghosts of those killed by her family’s weapons. It’s a terrific back story — even if it’s hokum — to a terrifically creepy mansion. Its crazy-quilt design, with secret passageways and stairways to nowhere, have made it a popular tourist attraction since 1923, when it was opened to the public after Sarah’s death.

For roughly 130 years, then, the house has been sitting there like an instant horror-movie kit — just add klieg lights — yet it’s only now making its big-screen debut in “Winchester.” Directed by the Spierig Brothers, who co-wrote with Tom Vaughan, “Winchester” features Jason Clarke as Dr. Eric Price, a San Francisco therapist hired to judge the sanity of the mansion’s owner, played by Helen Mirren. These are two very fine actors: Mirren needs no introduction, of course, while Clarke has been a standout in 2013’s “The Great Gatsby” and the adventure-drama “Everest.” The house, though, outshines them both.

Part real and part re-creation, the mansion steals just about every scene in “Winchester.” Its first great moment comes when Price arrives and finds himself in a room with a cabinet that clearly contains something alive. There’s a rational explanation, of course, but the good doctor never gets used to this disorienting house, nor do we. The Spierigs (last year’s “Jigsaw”) are at their best when exploring its wrong-shaped doorways and creepy corridors.

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The characters aren’t quite as interesting. Clarke makes the doctor fairly compelling, shading in his stock outline — substance problem, demons of his own — with a skeptical intelligence and an air of Victorian composure. Sarah, on the other hand, is a one-note woman, a foreboding figure dressed always in mourning black. Mirren can only do so much with her.

The Winchester Mystery House deserves a little better than “Winchester.” Then again, the movie can only drive more visitors to the mansion itself in San Jose. Like they say, the house always wins.