After last year’s takes on Nosferatu, Freaks, The Most Dangerous Game, The Invisible Man and The Wolfman, I thought this year’s Classic Horror Month should focus on the psychological horror flicks and what better film to start with than The Spiral Staircase (1946, dir. Robert Siodmak)?
Written by Mel Dinelli and based on the novel Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White, The Spiral Staircase is set in 1906 in a small Vermont town, where Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a mute woman working as a carer for the bedridden Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore in an Oscar-nominated performance), becomes terrorized, as does the whole town, when a killer on the loose is thought to be targeting disabled women. Rounding up the cast, we have George Brent as Professor Albert Warren (it was either that or a lawyer, or doctor, or something along those lines, as was customary for George Brent), Gordon Oliver as Steven Warren, the black sheep of the family, Rhonda Fleming as Blanche, his love interest, Kent Smith as Dr Parry, Elsa Lanchester as Mrs Oates, the housekeeper, and Sara Allgood as Nurse Barker.
As the opening sequence shows us this cute small town, we are immediately made aware of the ‘evil lurking in the suburbs’ trope, which, in my opinion, is one of the best realized tropes in cinema and one that never gets old. Sure enough, no less than fifteen minutes later, the mood changes and we feel like we’ve been thrust into a Wilkie Collins novel. Robert ‘King of Atmosphere’ Siodmak went all out with this one and gave us one of the spookiest and eeriest films of the decade, with some of the most terrifying visuals in cinema, courtesy of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. This, along with The Killers (1946) clearly shows that Siodmak owned 1946. But more than just a stunning piece of gothic horror and a clear influence on the later slasher and serial killer genres, The Spiral Staircase also functions as a turn-of-the-century family drama, with the right dosage of sibling rivarly between Albert and Steve, as well as Mrs Warren’s dismissal of them both. Perhaps more significantly, however, is the fact that The Spiral Staircase it is also a survival tale. Helen, a role I refuse to believe Olivia DeHavilland did not audition for, is our heroine and we root for her entirely. As she fights to find her place as well as her happiness, her mutism stands in the way and she seems to be constantly reminded of it – she even imagines a wedding in which she is unable to say the words. Throughout the film, we are clearly on her side. We want her to get out of the house, we want her to be able to warn everyone about the evil that threatens to make itself known, and we want her to get her voice back more than anything. As the world proves itself to be cruel and unforgiving through the use of a serial killer who targets women for their disabilities, The Spiral Staircase is a story about the resilience of the human spirit, perserverance, and the obstacles that need to be overcome and, by the end of the film, Helen is rewarded and so are we.