Hey all you spooky spirits out there, it’s me, Slick Dungeon. I’m back with another movie review for you all. This time I am reviewing Winchester, the movie about Sarah Winchester, her extremely bizarre house, the 1906 earthquake, and the deadly weapon she and her family profited from financially, the Winchester repeating rifle.
Fair warning that there will be spoilers below so if you want to watch this before reading the review, go ahead, I’ll wait.
Okay, back now? Good.
The actual history of the Winchester house is incredibly interesting and if you ever happen to be in San Jose, California, it’s a must tour attraction. I promise you there are absolutely no other houses like it on the entire planet. If you are lucky enough to take the tour, you will learn that Sarah Winchester was subject to several tragedies in her life. Her husband died and so did her only child. She did have a niece named Marion and Marion had a son named Henry. The movie proclaims that the house is still one of the most haunted mansions in North America. I’ll leave that up to debate as I tend to be pretty far on the skeptical scale when it comes to things like that. I’m not saying there aren’t supernatural things, or that people haven’t seen them, I’m just saying I would need to see a lot more solid evidence myself, first hand to be all in on it.
That being said, if anyone did have a reason to be haunted it was Sarah Winchester. The guns that her husband made and profited from killed hundreds of thousands of people in her life time and played a huge part in the civil war. The Winchester rifles were the gun of choice for the Union Army, and they were also used to slaughter and intimidate Indigenous People. That’s not including simple random gun violence where innocent people might have been killed by the lethal Winchester.
Sarah felt a huge amount of guilt over the fact that her family profited from this and long held the belief that she was cursed. She also very much believed in Mediums who could channel spirits and communicate with the dead. This was actually a fairly popular belief in the early 1900’s in California. Sarah was absolutely convinced that she was cursed and that the ghosts of those who were killed by Winchesters were haunting her.
While all that is interesting, and is touched on in the film, here’s the part that I think is the most intriguing. She thought that the best way to get rid of these ghosts was to constantly add to her house, adding, removing and remodeling at all hours of the day, seven days a week. She supposedly had these fits where she would sketch out rooms that she thought the ghosts were telling her to make. Being no dummy, she didn’t want the ghosts to just roam freely so she came up with utterly bizarre rooms as well. She thought this could trap or confuse the ghosts. Some of them you see in the movie but definitely not all of them. The film features the famous “stairs that go nowhere”. This is a staircase that literally leads to the ceiling with no way out. They also feature the swinging chandelier that is alleged to move when no one is in the room and there is no wind or anything that would cause it to move. They don’t include my favorite room (or at least I don’t think it was in the movie) which is just a room that has a floor made of trap doors. According to the tour, these rooms were meant to confuse the spirits but the movie has a little different take on it, saying that Sarah would build a room that she saw in a vision and then remove it once the spirit is freed. I don’t know if that’s true or not but it sort of makes sense.
Now that I have given you a mini-lesson on the history of the house, let me tell you about the movie. At the start of the movie we meet Dr. Eric Price. He’s recovering from a traumatic event involving himself, his wife, and a Winchester rifle. I won’t go into more detail on that in case you still haven’t watched the movie.
The good doctor has been medicating his pains with alcohol, women and opiates. He gets a knock on his door and is promptly hired by the Winchester Repeating Rifle company. See, there is a bit of a power struggle between Sarah and the other shareholders of her company. She owns 51% of the company so what she says goes. She wants the company to start making things like roller skates instead of guns. The board of directors realize that Sarah is exhibiting, eccentric, to say the least, behavior. They want Sarah evaluated by a psychiatrist who can evaluate her mental state. If she is declared mentally unwell, she no longer has her stake in the company.
Most of the plot goes in a direction you might expect. The film comes down very solidly on there actually being ghosts haunting the place. The doctor starts seeing odd things while he is there to do his evaluation and tries to just ignore it as a side effect of withdrawal. Sarah proves herself to be every bit as odd as was expected, but so many strange things happen, it’s hard for the doctor to doubt her.
While there, Marion experiences some pretty harrowing events involving Henry. He falls out of a window and at one point even attacks Sarah with a rifle. The movie plays it that Henry was possessed.
Now I am going to spoil one big detail so if you really want to watch this first, do so and come back here.
The center piece of the movie is when a ghost seems to invade the house, in a room full of Winchester guns. This haunting is so bad that the whole house shakes, people die, and plenty of damage is done. The movie pretty much tells us that this supernatural event is what tore up the house.
But here’s the thing. This movie takes place in 1906. That’s the year of the famous San Francisco earthquake that led to a ton of destruction and devastation. People died, buildings collapsed, fires raged for weeks after. It would have been a cataclysmic nightmare for anyone affected by it. And one thing we know for absolute certain? They epicenter was not The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose California. It was clearly centered just west of San Francisco, which is nearly an hour long drive from San Jose.
I think this is why critics actually hated this movie. While Helen Mirran’s performance is a little odd and even at times comical, she was playing an extremely eccentric woman. The doctor with his backstory is pretty far fetched but I can understand why they threw that in the movie. It made for good dramatic effect. But to imply that this haunting caused the 1906 earthquake? That’s pretty far off base both metaphorically and geographically.
Now, it is an absolute fact that the house did sustain damage during that quake. There is no question about that, and I do believe some workers there even died. This was back before buildings were required to be retrofitted to withstand earthquakes so a house even sort of near the epicenter certainly could have sustained a good amount of damage and a large house like the Winchester one, with all its construction happening was virtually guaranteed to take damage.
The story unfolds in it’s natural conclusion, which I won’t spoil here, other than to say it’s extremely predictable. But here’s the thing. I still think you should watch it. I think this is probably the only film I will ever say this for but don’t watch it for the story, or the time period, or the acting. Why should you watch it? For the architecture. I don’t know how much of this was allowed to be filmed on site and how much they reconstructed but watching the movie is nearly as dizzying as going through the house itself. There are nearly 100 rooms, all of them unique and strange. We only see a fraction of that, but it’s enough to give you a sense of how odd it is.
After you watch the movie, whenever it’s open again, go and take a tour of Winchester Mystery House. It’s absolutely fascinating and one of the oddest tours you can find yourself on.
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