Do you remember when Snoopy used to sit on top of his dog house and type a story that started “it was a dark and stormy night?” If that dog ever buckled down and got beyond that first phrase, this would have been the movie based on his story. At least it would have been if his dark and stormy night involved a serial killer who was bumping off women with various physical deformities.
The Spiral Staircase is based on a novel called Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White (she also wrote the novel that Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes was based on) and in the more than capable hands of director Robert Siodmak, it’s bathed in darkness and shadows, the black and white photography only enhancing the increasingly mounting terror that the mute servant girl feels as the killer stalks her in the country mansion where she works.
It shouldn’t be that surprising that the movie should have such a distinctive, almost noirish look since Siodmak was behind the camera for the great film noir Phantom Lady as well as Burt Lancaster’s Criss Cross. Siodmak takes this expressionistic aesthetic and grafts it onto a story that’s basically a primitive slasher movie.
And it’s a pretty good primitive slasher movie, too since you’re left with the distinct impression that the killer could potentially be any of the male characters.
Is it the hunky new doctor in town who has a thing for the mute servant girl? Or is it George Brent, the professor who owns the house with the spiral staircase? (Was he finally driven over the edge after appearing in not one, but two ridiculously silly Bette Davis vehicles – The Great Lie and The Old Maid?)
Maybe it’s his half brother (he refers to him as a step brother, but they share the same father), a slimy womanizer who just recently returned from Europe when the murders started? Is it the scuzzy and crabby caretaker? Is it the old doctor who doesn’t like the competition from the hunky new doctor? Or could it be the constable on whose watch this is all going down on? And just why is the killer bumping off women with handicaps of one variety or another?
This being 1946, you’re not going to have the explicit violence and gore that you would get later on in such films, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some rather jarring scenes. (In one scene, darkness fills the center of the shot and all you see are the victim’s hands writhing in agony at each edge of the shadow.)
Throw in the close up and zooming shots of the killer’s eye as well as a fairly disturbing moment where the servant girl looks into a mirror and realizes she has no mouth and you can tell that you’re not in for some milquetoast murder melodrama. Likewise, once the identity of the killer is revealed, his earlier comments take on a new light and seemingly innocent happenings earlier in the evening turn out to have quite sinister motives.
While all the guys are milling around taking turns as the prime suspect, the women in the cast are able to add more to the film than just be potential victims. Dorothy McGuire in particular is quite effective as Helen, the mute with a haunted past whose handicap ends up threatening her life.
Even a dream sequence where she thinks about what her wedding to the hunky new doctor would be like isn’t just filler like it might be in other films, as it drives home just what a great problem being speechless can be.
Ethel Barrymore is also effective playing the bedridden mother of George Brent’s half-brother who says scary things to Helen about how she needs to leave the house because it isn’t safe and how she saw a murder years ago and the victim was Helen!
Punctuated with the big thunderstorm, people coming and going in and out of the rain, doors being mysteriously left open, and an oblivious bulldog named Carlton, and you’ve got the perfect atmosphere to compliment both the story and the technique exhibited here.
The only drawback is that at 86 minutes, it was just too short. When the killer revealed himself to Helen, I was thinking that it was just a false alarm because there was no way it could be concluded so soon. We had just gotten all the red herrings revved up! Let them play out some more. Let’s see a few more people disappear in the basement or the attic or wherever. As it was, it felt like it was missing part of the middle act. Despite its fleeting presence though, I wouldn’t hesitate recommending that you start your next dark and stormy night with a trip down The Spiral Staircase!
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