A Movie A Day: THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945) Anything can happen in the dark.
Published at: Oct. 20, 2009, 7:04 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the newest October special horror run of A Movie A Day!
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf, recorded on the home DVR or streamed via Instant Netflix and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my usual A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day. At the end of each standard AMAD I’m going to include a recommendation of a genre film that is either one of my personal favorites or too good of a double feature with the AMAD title to pass up a mention.]
Horror film hint #39: If someone says “You can’t trust anybody” in a genre picture it is that exact person who cannot be trusted.
It’s not too hard to figure out who the killer is in this early entry into the stalker genre, 1945’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, but that’s no big deal. The success or failure of this picture doesn’t ride on the whodunit aspect, but on the level of classy suspense. There’s an elegance to this movie that is noticeable right away with the sharp and almost gothic black and white photography. Add on to that assured direction by Robert Siodmak (THE KILLERS, SON OF DRACULA) and the high caliber of actors cast and you see RKO was taking this movie pretty seriously.
There’s a series of killings in a small town. It’s been happening for years, but after a period of quiet it has started up again. All the victims seem to be handicapped, we come to find out, and that doesn’t bode well for our lead, the gorgeous, but mute Helen played by Dorothy McGuire. We later discover our killer can’t tolerate imperfection and Helen straddles that line.
Her dumbness comes from a childhood shock. It’s a mental block, not a physical affliction, so there’s the possibility that she’ll be cured at some point.
We first meet Helen watching a movie, but this story takes place at the turn of the century so the movie is still a brand new experience, a magical window operated by a dude hand-cranking a projector and a church lady playing an organ to supply the soundtrack.
McGuire reminded me a bit of Audrey Tautou as Amelie with this introduction. There’s something so adorably innocent about her, which makes her the absolute perfect target in a horror movie. The audience is on McGuire’s side the second we see her.
And we know she’s in for it straight away as her introduction is tied in with the film’s first killing. The movie is being shown in a hotel’s ballroom and one of the residents is killed in the room above the makeshift theater.
The language of horror movies is pretty distinct and it’s easy to mark the various generations by the language of horror. For example, Bob Clark and John Carpenter dictated how horror movies were made with their films BLACK CHRISTMAS and HALLOWEEN respectively. The killer’s POV, the level of gore, the beats of suspense. Those films influenced the horror of the ‘70s and ‘80s more than any other.
So, I was frankly a little surprised to see little hints of that formula, precursors of that kind of cinematic language, in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE some 30 years before it’d be the norm.
In this first scene we see a girl in her room, casually milling about. It’s all very natural. She goes to the closet, opens it and the camera holds on the conspicuously arranged rack of clothes. Without us seeing a bulge the clothing or a shuffling or anything we know instantly there’s a killer in the closet.
There’s POV work here, but the most cutting edge horror film language is just in how this sequence is edited for maximum suspense and the immediate feeling of danger.
Then we we get a shot that is straight out of BLACK CHRISTMAS. We see an extreme close up of a man’s eyeball, opened wide and menacing. Reflected in the eye is the woman, still unawares of his presence.
Now they don’t graphically show any killing in this movie, as you’d have to expect from anything made in this era. It just wasn’t done, but like I said the beats are there for the kind of suspense that would later become the go to for good genre fare.
The bulk of the flick takes place in an old Victorian mansion where McGuire works, under the employ of a feeble and mean old woman, Mrs. Warren, played by Ethel Barrymore. Barrymore, in fact, was nominated for supporting actress because of her work in this movie and I can see why. The lady relishes in being a huge bitch to everybody in the house, with the exception of McGuire. For some reason she likes this girl, lighting up whenever she comes in and treating her like an actual human being.
A dark and stormy night serves as the backdrop for this entire story, which is told over the course of one night in this old creepy house. There’s a cavalcade of characters… the kindly doctor/love interest Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), Mrs. Warren’s two adult children, George Brent (the responsible one) and Gordon Oliver (the slack-off), a boozing housemaid (played by the Bride herself, Mrs. Elsa Lanchester, a matronly nurse who is the recipient of most of Barrymore’s abuse (Sara Allgood) and Rhonda Fleming as Brent’s woman.
Barrymore knows something is up and keeps trying to get McGuire out of the house for good. She knows McGuire is in danger and it’s clear she knows a lot more than that, but she won’t spill.
Of course we get to the point where it’s just the bedridden old lady and the mute young woman alone in the house with the killer and the last act is a cat and mouse game as McGuire does her best to survive.
It’s such a great premise. I mean, the killer doesn’t really even have to cut the power or disconnect the old-timey phone because what’s McGuire gonna do? Call for help? Tap it out in morse?
Frequent Val Lewton cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (BEDLAM, CAT PEOPLE) shoots the hell out of this movie, creating that perfect forbidding tone that makes this movie pop with nervous energy. I love seeing that in movies. Siodmak doesn’t move the camera around a ton, but uses editing to keep the flow alive and depends on Musuraca to keep the energy up with the photography. THE INNOCENTS is another example of that kind of filmmaking.
There’s a 1975 remake that I’d like to see if only for the casting of Christopher Plummer as the doctor/love interest, Jacqueline Bisset as the mute Helen, Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Wiggs from Hitchcock’s THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY) as the mean old lady and the odd casting of John Phillip Law as the slacker brother and the fact that it’s directed by THE ITALIAN JOB’s Peter Collinson. That said, a cursory glance at the reaction to the remake dulls my interest quite a bit. But it’s still Christopher Plummer and Jacqueline Bisset, so I will watch it some day.
Final Thoughts: As pure entertainment THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE still works some 64 years after release and digging deeper shows just how ahead of the curve this film was. The movie rests in a sweet-spot, right on verge of being overly theatrical and almost fantastic in nature, but still residing in a realistic world. Atmosphere, acting, script, direction, editing, production design, score… all work together to craft an enduring thriller.
I was so very tempted to keep the high class rolling and maybe pair this movie with another black and white thriller classic like THE INNOCENTS or maybe Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to keep the leading lady with a disability stalked by a killer theme going, so I settled on:
That DVD cover isn’t horrible for a slasher movie, but not nearly as cool as the original artwork. Check it out:
1981’s EYES OF A STRANGER is a low budget horror flick about a reporter (Lauren Tewes) and her blind, mute and deaf… the trifecta of vulnerability… younger sister, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in her first big screen role, who are under the evil eye of a tubby serial killer. Tewes suspects the serial murderer and rapist does indeed live in their same apartment building and goes about trying to prove it, which invites danger to her and her sister.
Directed by Ken Wiederhorn of SHOCK WAVES (the Peter Cushing Nazi zombie movie) and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 2 fame EYES OF A STRANGER has a gritty, creepy vibe to it from the very first scene, something it shares with THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. Also, like today’s AMAD, the acting is surprisingly good especially from Leigh who has one of her most important tools of the trade taken from her (voice).
Wiederhorn’s direction is sharper than you might expect from this era as well. There’s an incredibly suspenseful scene in Leigh’s kitchen as she’s preparing something for herself and the killer is right there with her. She has no way of knowing he’s there and he teases her… moves things around, confusing the poor girl. It’s a scene about power. In fact I’d go so far as to call it a rape scene although it doesn’t go that far. The intent is still the same.
Tom Savini is in charge of the effects in this movie and as you'd expect from Savini of this era you get some decent gore.
It might not be the kind of film that sets the world on fire, but I think it’s good enough not to live in obscurity.
Here are the next week’s worth of AMAD titles:
Tuesday, October 20th: DEMON SEED (1977)
Wednesday, October 21th: STAGEFRIGHT (1987)
Thursday, October 22th: DEAD OF NIGHT (1977)
Friday, October 23th: THE SERPENT’S EGG (1978)
Saturday, October 24th: THE SWARM (1978)
Sunday, October 25th: THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1960)
Monday, October 26th: COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970)
Tomorrow we move on to Julie Christie getting some up close and personal time with the supernatural in DEMON SEED! See you then!
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