THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE
Director: Robert Siodmak
Year of release: 1946
Country of origin: USA
Running time: 81 minutes
DVD/Blu ray: DVD only
Tagline: "Conflicts that freeze your emotions, suspense that takes your beath".
Also known as: Some Must Watch and Silence of Helen McCord
Casting the spotlight on the slasher genre
Story: Though probably not what most people would consider a slasher this is usually billed as a psychological thriller or film noir or occasionally a horror. I think it contains enough of the slasher ingredients we would later come to know however to be considered a proto slasher in the same way as Psycho and Peeping Tom. I keep the DVD among my slasher collection so decided to cover it here as well.
The story follows Helen, a young lady who has lost the capacity to speak after a tragic accident involving the deaths of her parents years before. She works as a servant of a sort for an ailing old woman who is mainly bed ridden at a large Gothic style mansion. There is a sense of panic going around as the townspeople are on edge due to a series of murders in which someone is targeting young women with afflictions. Those close to Helen worry she may be in danger due to her speech issues with Helen herself being told to run away while she still can by the sick lady in her care Mrs Warren. On an ominous stormy night Helen soon finds herself trapped within the mansion with the killer who has indeed marked her as the next victim.
Good points: The film has a really good atmosphere with the foul weather of the stormy night combining well with the mansion setting of the house to create a very spooky backdrop on which the story plays out. Things like flickering candles, banging shutters, the lashing rain and the spiral staircase itself of the title all contribute to an unsettling ambiance.
Considering how old this is it still looks fairly attractive especially taking into account it is in black and white. Despite the restrictions of the day the cinematography throughout is a strong point with some particularly interesting first person style shots from the killers point of view either just before a kill or while he is spying on people. Doesn't sound like much today but it was probably innovative at the time. We also get some skin crawling shots of just the killers eye which indicate he is close at hand which are perhaps what went on to inspire Black Christmas to do something similar almost thirty years later.
In what later became true slasher fashion there is a mystery surrounding the killers identity with guesswork involved as we try and reason out who it could be from he people in Helen's life. There are a few possibilities like both the step and biological sons of Mrs Warren one of whom has just returned from Europe and seems to have a knack of rubbing people the wrong way. The policeman could also be considered a suspect as could the new doctor in town and love interest to Helen who sometimes seems a little too charming. While it isn't exactly the hardest case in the world to crack and most will figure out the killers identity before the end it is a nice early try at a whodunnit style mystery which later went on to be a slasher staple.
Another positive is that we get some good acting and likeable characters. Despite not being able to talk Helen still comes across as someone we can root for. The other characters are entertaining as well and well cast with no one letting the side down and standing out as annoying.
Bad Points: As you can guess with this being so old and having a PG rating here in the UK there is nothing at all in the way of blood in the film. This is to be expected of course given the films age but they could have perhaps thrown a splash of gore in here and there so to see a complete absence of it is disappointing.
I would have liked to have seen a bit more emphasis put on the previous victims of the killer, those other women with afflictions that were killed off before Helen was targeted. The idea of women being targeted with ailments or problems was interesting but not explored anywhere near as much as it should have been. The one victim of this kind we did get to see at the start was said to be lame/crippled and walked with a bit of a limp. In truth though I didn't even notice the limp first time around and had to go back and watch it again to confirm there was something visually wrong with her. So in her case they could have made the condition more obvious and I would have liked to have seen at least one of the other murders as well to add to what turns out to be a very light body count. As it was though we only heard about the early murders as something that took place before our story began. Even if not seeing them though it would have been nice to hear more details of their afflictions and deaths and possibly how the killer used their weaknesses against them.
This is a small thing and a nit pick but the story was slightly muddled concerning Mrs Warren and how she knew Helen was in danger. Spoilers ahead for the rest of this point! It was revealed that Mrs Warren saw someone being murdered years ago in the garden of the house with the killer being a shadowed figure she first mistook for a tree. Presumably this was the killers first victim but it wasn't clear how Mrs Warren suspected one of her sons of this crime seeing that she didn't see him properly. Perhaps the two sons were the only people in attendance at the time but even so you wouldn't suspect your own son or even a step son just based on that. I suppose she arrived at her suspicions just based on knowing her ex husband who hated weakness and imperfections may have influenced them but it just seemed a bit light here and as if more was required to bring her to her suspicions.
Verdict: An enjoyable watch with a number of key things that we would later go on to see show up in slashers regularly such as the mystery surrounding the killer with multiple suspects, young women being targeted, a final girl of sorts in Helen who is chased around by the killer and a possible motive being tied in with actions of parents. Add in the great setting of the house and it's definitely a winner. I would have liked to have seen a bit of blood and a couple more deaths but it is very good especially taking into account how old it is.
Bodycount (contains major spoilers):
1) Woman with limp: Strangled as she puts her dress on.
2) Blanche: Killed in the basement, possibly strangled.
3) Professor Albert Warren: Shot on the spiral staircase by Mrs Warren.