The House of the Spirits (1993) from Tuna and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

We disagree on this movie. One thumb way, way, way down, one thumb up.

Scoopy's notes in yellow:

Gene Siskel used to say that there are certain rules to determine if a story has merit. For example, the character development stinks if the plot is actually less interesting than it would be to have a dinner conversation with the characters. I have my own such rules:

1. The story stinks if I could have written it. This is true for two reasons. First, I have no talent. Second, if I could have written it, it sure isn't going to surprise me much, is it?

2. The story really stinks if I could have written it in less than an hour.

In fact, I would say the following as a near certainly. If I gave you the cast and budget of this film, you could not make a worse movie than this, no matter what you did. If I could have given this cast and budget to Ed Wood, he would have done better. This is, therefore, the worst possible movie that could have been made, given this star-studded cast, and deserves a special place in the contention for the worst movie of all time. It is certainly not the worst movie ever made. You could make a far worse one. But if you could level the playing field and give everyone the same cast and budget, this may be the worst movie ever made from the available material.

  • The plot is a complete cliché. If Ed Wood wanted to write a big, sweeping, lurid mini-series about Latin America, this is exactly what he would have written, complete with multi-generational sweep. The rich landowner's daughter falls in love with the revolutionary who wants to overthrow the class of people represented by her father. The landowner says that the people are children and have to be treated as such. The revolutionary's father is the landowner's trusted foreman. The landowner rapes all the peasant girls, including one who appears to have come from India - not sure what she was doing there. One of his bastard sons turns out to be the right-wing Colonel who talks like he came from a mob family in upstate New York, and who tortures his own half-sister in order to get information about her revolutionary boyfriend.
  • Every single character is a cartoon, and there is no effort made to develop any of them as well-rounded individuals, although the landowner does sort of make a half-hearted attempt at deathbed reformation in the last couple of minutes, as all evil movie landowners do.
  • Every plot twist is unbelievable. Not just one here and there, but every one. In addition to all the incestuous coincidences between the characters, consider some of the following:
    • When the landowner was a young man, he was told that he couldn't marry the girl of his dreams unless he got rich.  No problem. He went out and found a gold mine. There are always plenty of those lying around. 
    • When he returns with his wealth to find that his girl has died of Ali McGraw's Disease. He retires to the hills for twenty years. The girl's younger sister, who is a psychic and secretly in love with him, becomes mute and will not speak for those twenty years, until he comes down from the hills and proposes to her. 
    • The characters tell blatant lies to one another, but none of them ever think to verify the facts. The landowner's sister, who is a loony spinster well known as the village idiot, tells him that the doctor said he should not sleep with his wife any more. Now if your sister was a well known village idiot, and she told you something like that, would you believe it and stop making love to your wife, or would you ask the doctor if that really was his recommendation? Mr Landowner simply decided not to sleep with his wife any more.
    • In one scene, the old landowner is trying to kill the young revolutionary while he sleeps in a barn unarmed. He has the barrel of the rifle about three inches from the revolutionary's skull. You'd think it would be curtains for the young fella, eh? Nope. First a noise outside startles the old guy and simultaneously awakens the young guy. So he never gets that point-blank shot off, but he still has the rifle in a closed barn, and he's a guy who never misses a squirrel at 100 yards. Apparently, despite appearances to the contrary, the young revolutionary is smaller and faster and trickier than a squirrel, and manages to avoid enough rifle fire to kill the entire population of Latin America. By the way, it seemed apparent in this scene that they were, in fact, hoping to make a TV mini-series, and that Episode 1 was supposed to stop while the landowner had the rifle on the revolutionary's head, and the announcer was supposed to come in and say "same bat-time, same bat-channel"
  • The acting is weak. Given the fact that these are some of the best actors in the world, if you directed a film starring them, even though you don't know jack about directing, these people would all do better than they did in this movie. Again it seems fair to say that this the worst possible acting you could get out of this group of people.
  • It features an incredibly over-enunciated and sentimentalized faux-sensitive narration as if it was delivered by a very pretentious mother reading her children a bedtime story. Here's a tip for you youngsters. If you're going to write a detective noir for a character like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, then a narrator is de rigueur. Otherwise, try to use the characters and action to tell the story you want to tell. The magic of film is that you have music and dialogue and pictures to tell your story, and don't need to read the book out loud. Sometimes an extra layer of narration can further the depth of the story, as in The Princess Bride, but mostly it's just a sign that you don't know what the hell you are doing with the dialogue, words, and pictures.
  • The conventions are inconsistent. It is supposed to be about the Spanish part of Latin America, right? So the people should be speaking Spanish. Of course, the movie is in English, so they need some convention to represent Spanish. Some characters speak English with an American accent. Others speak English with a Spanish accent. Others speak English with a Mexican accent. One of the soldiers speaks English with a germanic accent of some kind, maybe Swedish. Vincent Gallo speaks with his typical idiosyncratic accent, namely an impersonation of Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle. Meryl Streep and Winona Ryder chose to use the official over-enunciated Madonna accent, whatever that is, a cross between British and Esperanto, I think. Poor Jeremy Irons was totally confused. They told him the movie was about South America, and he thought that meant the Confederacy. Hey, they also had abusive plantation owners, so I could see why he got confused and ended up playing a patriarchal landbaron from Missourah instead of Argentina. We end up with a curious situation where the British Irons chose to shelve his natural accent and speak with an American one in order to sound more South American, and the Americans chose not to speak with their natural American accents, presumably so they would sound more South American.  
  • This is supposedly a realistic melodrama, yet one of the characters has psychic powers - always a personal favorite of mine - she even tells guys which horse to bet on the next day! Oh, yeah, and she can levitate furniture as well. Thankfully, the scriptwriter realized that this was leading in an awkward direction. Although the story focuses on this for the first twenty minutes, the author wisely chose to drop it deep into the background, and eventually made it a dead end.
  • I watched through this thing, wondering why all the passion and romance was told in a tone both dispassionate and unromantic, and why half of the movie takes place on deathbeds, as if it were all written and directed by Ingmar Bergman instead of a Latin American. Then I realized that it was, in a sense. The director of this film is a Danish guy, Bille August, who had just come from directing The Best Intentions, which was actually written by Bergman himself! So Bergman's spirit was the only one really in that house. In addition to directing The House of the Spirits, August also wrote the screenplay, therefore making sure that as little as possible of the original spirit would creep in accidentally. It was written by a real Latin American, Isabel Allende, niece of the former Chilean presidente. 
  • I guess a lot of this was actually filmed in Denmark, based on the credits (the rest was filmed in Portugal). At least that explains the whole White Christmas motif.
  • The DVD has no widescreen version, no features! Say, it is a TV mini-series.
  • Did I mention that it is almost two and a half hours long? Say, it is a perfect three-part miniseries, allowing 17 minutes per hour for plenty of commercials.


Tuna's note in white: 

The House of the Spirits (1993) is a sweeping historical character based drama based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Isabel Allende about her family in Chile. The films covers 1926 through the mid-70s, which is probably the biggest weakness. 50 years of a complex family is a lot of time, and a lot of characters, to cram into a film. Allende was oppose to a film version of her book until she met director Bille August. She had been concerned that the story would be turned into a melodramatic soap. August convinced her that he understood her work, and could bring it to the screen. After securing the backing of producer Bernd Eichinger, he assembled an incredible cast which included:

  • Meryl Streep
  • Glenn Close
  • Jeremy Irons
  • Winona Ryder
  • Antonio Banderas
  • Vanessa Redgrave
  • Maria Conchita Alonso
  • Sarita Choudhury


Before the marriage, we see Maria Conchita Alonzo as a hooker with Irons. She shows pretty much everything.

There is a scene where Close is spying on Irons and Streep, and we see a spread legged shot of someone from the back. No way to tell if this is a double or not, but given that Meryl is not bashful, and that it is behind a film curtain, it might be her.

There were rumors of exposure from Winona, but this is an obvious double.

After the death of his mother, Irons decides to marry Streep. Streep arranges for his sister, Glenn Close, to live with them. Streep gives birth to a baby girl, who grows up to be Winona Ryder, and, much to her father's displeasure, develops a relationship with Antonio Banderas, son of one of his workers, and a revolutionary. 

DVD info from Amazon.

  • no widescreen, a poor job on the pan 'n scan

  • poor transfer. I think the photography is excellen, but with a pixillated pan 'n scan, it's difficult to tell.

  • no meaningful features

Maltin says Streep was horribly miscast, but Allende, the author, thought that Streep was perfect both for and in the role, as Streep had the same ethereal quality as her mother. Berardinelli liked it, but spent most of his review talking about what could have been better.  As a straight genre film, it is as slow moving as most historical character driven dramas, yet has excellent acting, good character development, and some wonderful locations and photography. It also plays as a history, giving insight into the political turmoil that is synonymous  with Latin America. 

The film also leaves us with a message that I agree with. Revenge doesn't work. Forgiveness and celebration of life are what we need. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half. Ebert 2/4, Maltin 2/4, Berardinelli 3/4

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 17 articles on file

  • I have to tell you first that I'm not kidding. This film won a Coral Award at the Havana Film Festival for "best work of a non-Latin American director on a Latin America (sic) Subject". It appears to have been the only nominee that year.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.0,  consistent with the critical consensus.
  • With their dollars ... it grossed a weak $6 million at the domestic box.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. (Scoopy says D. Technically good, with some of the best actors in the world, but a story bad and trite beyond words, although it does provide some solid unintentional laughs - ala The Betsy. In fact, The Betsy is the most comparable movie - great cast wasted on a silly, melodramatic, network TV mini-series script. If you like movies like The Betsy or mini-series like The Thorn Birds, this could be your cup of tea. If not, give it a wide berth.)

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