Tuesday, January 03, 2006

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: The Spiral Staircase (1946)

A dear friend and colleague from France stopped by at my home office during the holidays, and gave me and Kathryn a wonderful gift - a DVD of the early serial killer drama, The Spiral Staircase, directed by Robert Siodmak.

This elegantly made, deeply creepy film (with a screenplay by Mel Dinelli, based on the novel "Some Must Watch" by Ethel Lina White) is the harrowing tale of a small town dealing with a rash of brutal murders.

An unknown killer is methodically offing local women who possess some kind of imperfection. One victim is "mentally deficient," another bore a scar on her face. One of the first scenes in the film (and a truly terrifying one...) involves a woman entering her hotel room - totally unaware of danger - only to be confronted with the fiendish murderer waiting in the closet. We witness the attack (briefly), but never catch the identity of the killer. Instead, we see only his hateful, rage-filled eyeball...

Who is the killer?

"Somebody in this town. Somebody we all know. Someone we see in this town everyday. Could be me. Could be you,"suggests the Constable with more than a trace of paranoia. The police may not know the identity of the killer, but they suspect that the next victim may be Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a lovely young woman who went mute after a childhood trauma involving a fire.

Helen is one of many servants at the Gothic, old Warren Mansion, a foreboding place surrounded by a black, wrought-iron fence. There, in one of the many bedrooms, Old Lady Warren (Ethel Barrymore) is bed-ridden and dying. Near-hysterical, she warns Helen to leave the house that very night...that dark and stormy night...lest she die.

"There was a girl murdered here, long ago..." she warns. Significantly, Mrs. Warren keeps a pistol by her bedside...

Also residing in the grand old house is Stephen Warren (Gordon Oliver) a sarcastic playboy whose visits to America always coincides with murder. He's there with his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, Blanche (Rhonda Fleming).

Stephen's brother (Blanche's former boyfriend), the erudite Professor Warren (George Brent), also lives in the home, but keeps mostly to himself. Finally, Helen's would-be husband, Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), promises to get Helen out of the house before she can be attacked, but then is called away into the pouring rain on important medical business, leaving the young lady to fend for herself in a house filled with secrets and a diabolical killer...

In it's technical perfection and chilly, elegant story-telling, The Spiral Staircase looks and feels like a vintage Alfred Hitchcock film. It's from the theatrical school of filmmaking of its era, not the more naturalistic style we've become accustomed to in newer horror films, such as High Tension or Wrong Turn. This means that characters are given to long expositional monologues and speeches with flourish, rather than reacting naturally as would expect in, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Nonetheless, the fear is palpable in this film, for a few critical reasons. Paramount among these is the central location: the entire film occurs during one long night, as a terrible storm rages outside the house (an externalization of the killer's rage?) The Warren house is a vast, dark place, with many places to die (including a dark basement...) and the killer watches from the shadows. The final confrontation occurs on - you guessed it - a spiral staircase, as the killer begins to reveal the perverted labyrinth of his mind...

Beyond the claustrophobic setting, Dorothy McGuire's character, Helen, represents the perfect horror movie "final girl" in a sense, because she can't even scream to warn others or to get help. Other characters are killed around her, and she must convey to the survivors what has occurred, but without the all-important ability to speak. We've seen blind characters in horror films before, like Mia Farrow in See No Evil (1971) or Audrey Hepburn in the classic Wait Until Dark, but this is something else entirely. Helen's dilemma is made abundantly clear during a "fantasy" wedding sequence wherein she imagines herself marrying Dr. Parry. It comes time for her to recite her vows, to say "I do," but she is helpless to say anything...and the fantasy becomes a nightmare. In another scene, she races to a telephone to call for help, but then can't utter a word, even as an impatient operator asks if anybody is on the line.

There's also a nice psychological underpinning in the film. Helen is mute because of a "mental trauma" from her past, and forced to confront these events by the Doctor. Sort of an aggressive form of psychotherapy.

But more unique is the mental instability of the killer. Thanks to Psycho and Alfred Hitchcock, we are all-too familiar with films in which the "mother" is the source of all the murderous rage and insanity. In The Spiral Staircase, it is a long-dead father who is responsible for creating madness in one of his boys. For this "Bad Father" derided weakness in his boys, and made them feel inadequate. One responded by rooting out weakness (imperfection...) in women, and snuffing it out. But which one? That's the crux of the movie's suspense...

"Too many trees stretch their branches...try to get in...creep up to the house..." warns dying Ms. Warren, describing perfectly the insanity of one son (she knows not which...). His mind has been infiltrated by twisted, gnarled thoughts; ones that creep up on his goodness and turn him mad.

Film comes in two distinct schools: the realistic approach and the formalist approach. Like all of Hitchcock's films (which attempt to manipulate reality so as to create strong emotions in viewers...), Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase is formalist in the extreme; born of an age where theatricality was something to be proud of, and wherein extreme angles could symbolize the twisted mentality of a monster.

The Spiral Staircase is a masterpiece of its day, and a terrific and early example of the serial killer in the cinema. I had a great time watching it. I especially liked a self-reflexive scene early in the film. Mute Helen sits down and watches a silent movie unspool before her eyes, one entitled The Kiss. A woman plays a piano nearby, to the accompanying the images on screen. Because she's mute, Helen will be starring in a silent movie of her own before the night is through, not one about a kiss, but about a kill, instead...


  1. interesting that you mentioned high tension in contrast to the spiral staircase? what did you make of tension? it really had me for awhile, in that i felt it was one of the most brutal and artistic films in awhile, rising miles above its basic genre. and normally twist endings can't ruin movies for me (not since the usual suspects, maybe), but the whole explanation for this one just ruined whatever i had invested in the whole thing. the concept could have worked, but not in how it blatantly violated the presentation of everything before it. i couldn't even find a sensical subjective angle to explain it away.

  2. George -

    My feelings on HIGH TENSION echo yours to a large degree. While I watched it, I felt totally immersed in the action. It was an artistic, intense and expressionistic horror film in the vein of Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left and other favorites...though the characters behaved in naturalistic fashion, not theatrical fashion (like SPIRAL STAIRCASE). However, the ending really threw me for a loop. I am totally conflicted about it, and thus, the movie as a whole. HIGH TENSION is either a work of total genius that I am now too old and set in my ways to *get*, or it is a strong horror film with a deeply flawed third act that retroactively destroys all the good work of the previous two acts. I vacillate in my feelings about it. The ending is certainly gung-ho, and even revolutionary in a sense. I'm just not sure that it makes even a modicum of narrative sense. I probably need to go back and watch the film a second time; knowing what I know, and then judge if the film "works" for me at that point. I should review it here, and will do so in the future. Obviously, the film lingers on my mind, as I keep bringing it up, not only on the blog, but in conversation with friends. Which leads me to believe there's something powerful there...

  3. Anonymous8:57 PM

    I'm from Wilkinsburg, Pa. Where the Spiral Staircase was, at least in part, filmed. I'm sure this is the correct version. How do I go about getting a copy, please.