Robert Siodmak, 1946
Starring: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Elsa Lanchester
One stormy night, a young mute woman, Helen, is in danger when a serial killer begins targeting handicapped women in her neighborhood. She works as a companion to the sick, elderly Mrs. Warren, a proud but kind woman, who wants Helen to flee the house as soon as possible. Mrs. Warren doesn’t trust anyone in the house, which includes a number of servants and her two stepsons, Albert, a stern professor, and Steve, a playboy visiting from Europe. Dr. Parry, the new local doctor, has fallen in love with Helen and wants to take her to Boston for psychiatric treatment to help her regain her voice. Can he get her out of the house in time? Unfortunately a storm moves in and Parry is called away to help a sick boy and Helen is left on her own, with no one to hear her scream...
Based on Ethel Lina White’s novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase benefits from a number of strong female performances. Though she doesn’t speak, Dorothy McGuire (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Old Yeller) is likable as Helen and though she is overshadowed by some of the other actresses, this fits perfectly with Helen’s character. Helen’s impairment, muteness, is a perfect ingredient for a horror film and helps to emphasize the film’s sordid underbelly. She is unable to speak because of past trauma, further linking her with the numerous characters who have questionable pasts or worrisome secrets. The indomitable Ethel Barrymore has maybe three or four scenes, but completely owns the film, including the surprising ending, though Elsa Lanchester is also quite good as the drunk Mrs. Oates.
Unfortunately most of the male characters are forgettable. George Brent (The Painted Veil) is decent as Professor Warren and Gordon Oliver (West of Shanghai) is likable as Steven, though he could use a little more screen time. Dr. Parry might look familiar to fans of classic horror. He is played by the reliable Kent Smith, who co-starred in Cat People and Curse of the Cat People. There are actually a number of familiar faces from classic horror. Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) is the kind, but alcoholic housekeeper and Rhys Williams (The Son of Dr. Jekyll) plays her husband, the handyman. Sara Allgood from The Lodger (1944) is the tyrannical nurse.
Director Robert Siodmak made a number of horror films, including Son of Dracula and ridiculous cult favorite Cobra Woman, though The Spiral Staircase is his finest. It's not outright a horror film and also has plenty of film noir elements. He was also known for noir films, such as the classic The Killers, as well as Phantom Lady, The Dark Mirror, and beloved adventure film, The Crimson Pirate, starring Burt Lancaster. There is certainly a noir flavor here and the film also borrows from Hitchcock’s early suspense films.
There is the constant air of dread, anxiety, and suspense, which kicks off with the murder of a woman in her hotel room. Surprisingly effective and scary, the woman does not know that a killer awaits in her closet and all we see is his maniacal eyeball before he strikes. She is killed while a number of people, including Helen, are below watching a silent film. After this Helen walks home in the beginning of a thunderstorm, though she briefly gets a ride from Dr. Parry. She has to make her way through a sinister looking forest and in the background, someone in a shiny, black raincoat watches her, prefiguring at least one giallo stereotype. Later, the film also introduces a killer with black gloved hands.
There were a number of ‘40s films that turned the home into a place of murder and violence, namely for women. Gaslight, and Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Shadow of a Doubt are two key examples and The Spiral Staircase is certainly in the same tradition. The enormous house is almost a character in itself, with plenty of shadowy corners and foreboding places, including the labyrinthine basement and titular staircase. Nicholas Musuraca’s (Cat People) incredibly beautiful cinematography emphasizes its threatening and claustrophobic elements. Though the house is creepy enough on its own, the ever present storm adds a certain tension and expectation that bad things are about to happen at any moment.
The Spiral Staircase comes highly recommended and is available on DVD from Anchor Bay. It is a simple, direct film that may move a little slowly for modern horror fans, but the suspense is expertly built and the film refuses to overplay its hand. Avoid the two lousy remakes at all costs.