The time is early 20th century. The place is a small New England town. A serial killer, who only murders women with disabilities, is terrorizing a tight-knit community. Helen (Dorothy McGuire, Gentleman’s Agreement), a mute young woman working for a bedridden dowager, Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore, None but the Lonely Heart), is naturally concerned about her safety. As expected, the killer begins monitoring Helen’s movements.
Reaction & Thoughts:
As far as I’m concerned, this is the granddaddy of the Italian slasher better known as “giallo.” And because the subgenre “giallo” is the precursor to the American slasher, one could argue that The Spiral Staircase is also an ancestor to films like Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).
Although the film served as a blueprint for future killer-on-the-loose blockbusters, The Spiral Staircase has stylistic and thematic elements from the Val Lewton RKO productions. The Spiral Staircase was produced at RKO and one can clearly see the similarities between this movie and Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, Ghost Ship, etc. Something really good was happening at the studio because all these films were shot in a highly effective, imaginative manner.
Robert Siodmak (The Dark Mirror and The Killers) directed from a screenplay by Mel Dinelli based upon the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White.
There is really little plot here so the visuals are the true stars of the film. It was extraordinarily shot in chiaroscuro fashion by Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People and Out of Past). It’s indeed a very atmospheric movie. Most of the story takes place in dark rooms at night and a sense of uneasiness, danger, is sustained throughout the entire film. I was taken aback by the violence. The film’s mean-spirited tone was a surprise too. The murder set-pieces are cruel and scary..
McGuire is excellent as the archetypal “final girl.” She can’t rely on dialogue to convey terror, but her eyes are very expressive. Barrymore, who received an Oscar nomination for her small role as the elderly matriarch, is good too. She doesn’t have many scenes, but she manages to steal a few moments. Personally, I was very impressed with George Brent (Dark Victory), who plays Barrymore’s mild-mannered stepson. Brent, who tends to be a bit dull in a lot of movies, is able to create a well-rounded characterization of a lonely professor.
The supporting cast also includes lots of great character actors: Kent Smith (Cat People) as Dr. Parry, Rhonda Fleming (Spellbound) as Secretary Blanche, Sara Allgood (How Green Was My Valley) as Nurse Barker, Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein) Mrs. Oates, and Rhys Williams (The Corn is Green) as Mr. Oates. Ellen Corby (TV’s The Waltons) has a small role as a neighbor.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Spiral Staircase is a top-notch little chiller. It’s suspenseful, clever and so much fun. It’s also scary — I simply don’t see how anyone could dislike this incursion into the macabre. I feel safe recommending The Spiral Staircase to all movie buffs. Remade in 1975 and 2000. B&W, 85 minutes, Not Rated.