The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Directed by Robert Siodmak

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The Spiral Staircase takes place almost entirely within a large manor on a stormy night.  Helen takes care of the bedridden Mrs. Warren within the estate.  She wanders among the help and the other Warrens, all upper class elites.  Helen is also mute, and so she silently observes the ways all these characters interact.  Oh and there’s a murderer about who is targeting “defenseless” women whom we glimpse through eerie shots of a single eye spying on Helen from afar.

This is a horror film unlike many I’ve seen from this time period.  I don’t really know if I’ve seen any, actually.  The film was presented alongside On Dangerous Ground as part of a Hitchcock calendar at the Stanford Theatre, but it certainly bleeds much more into horror than the type of thriller Hitchcock did so well.

Maybe it’s that in thrillers we often have a better understanding of the villainy.  We’re made familiar with both the hunter and the hunted, and the “thriller” quality comes from learning about the disturbed quality of that hunter.  This is the case in movies like Strangers on a Train or Marnie and even in Vertigo, though there’s a lot going on in that movie worth discussing.  In these films we see who’s at risk, what’s at stake, but we’re also acquainted with the source of all the conflict.  The ‘thrill,’ I suppose, comes in the chase between those two characters.  This also creates suspense.

Now there is suspense in The Spiral Staircase, but the villain is meant to be a surprise until the very end.  We know there’s a murderer out there and later we know for sure (if we didn’t already) that he’s within the house alongside Helen and the others.  Still we only see the killer in extreme closeups or shrouded in the dark.  There is no humanizing the villain or any attempt to understand what drives him.  We just know the danger is out there.

There is some misdirection thrown in there when Helen believes one character, a slimy one, is the killer.  He’s Mrs. Warren’s womanizing son, and at one point he tells another character how men like to see women cry.  In the theater this line provoked an audible groan, and when the woman to whom he was talking soon told him off, there was a loud cheer.

Now this creates our own feelings of disgust with the character so that when Helen stumbles upon the dead body of his mistress and he soon walks in on her, we think he’s the killer.  We also know that this is too neat of an explanation and too early of a conclusion since the film ostensibly ends when the killer is revealed.

So sure enough he’s not the killer, but the real killer soon reveals himself.  During the climactic moment of the film, Helen shrieks and is suddenly able to speak again.  Before she had been unable to due to the trauma of seeing her parents die at a young age.  Now she can, apparently cured, and she calls the police, ending the film.

The Spiral Staircase is a pleasant enough horror movie.  It’s oddly funny, and the story feels like a staged performance.  We’re always inside, and Helen’s path through the house brings her into the company of a variety of different characters.  There’s the icy Mrs. Warren upstairs, her womanizing son and his mistress, that man’s step-brother, the maids and cooks who hangout downstairs as well as the doctor who stops by a couple times and is presented as Helen’s love interest.

As much as this is a horror film it’s also kind of a comedy.  The killer lurks about, but the film has to remind us that he’s out there.  For long stretches of time his presence is hardly felt, and the entire story feels like a series of relationship dramas.  There’s the man and his mistress, the two brothers, the respective mother/son dynamics, the doctor and Helen, etc.

Periodically we see the extreme close up of the killer’s eye, making sure we know he’s still there, but it really just feels like a bookend for the real story, which is Helen working through her inability to speak.

Though the narrative is limited to this large estate, there is a fantasy sequence depicting Helen’s fear that one day she’ll marry the doctor only to remain unable to say “I do” when called upon.  In the absurd and kind of silly scene, everyone stares at her with a mix of fear and disgust.  The moment tells us that this is her worst fear.  So her arc is learning to speak again, and it takes a serial killer to make that happen.

The Spiral Staircase is an entertaining little film.  It’s kind of silly, funny, eerie and rousing.  When the killer gets his comeuppance there was another loud cheer through the thin audience in the old theatre where I saw it.

Up Next: Spellbound (1945), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Tully (2018)

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