Synopsis: A serial killer stalks a mute servant girl in a remote mansion.
Stars: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith, Rhonda Fleming, Gordon Oliver, Elsa Lanchester, Sara Allgood, Rhys Williams
Director: Robert Siodmak
Running Length: 83 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Back in the 1940’s when The Spiral Staircase was first released, horror movies were a much different fare. Without the rising amount of blood, guts, and gore that came to define the genre in the late ‘60s up through today’s offerings, earlier films relied on the suggestion of danger and moody atmosphere to gnaw at the nerves of their audience. A prime example of how to get underneath the skin of moviegoers, The Spiral Staircase is spooky as all get-out and quite a find for horror fans looking to class up their act.
Based on the 1933 novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase centers on a mute girl (the gorgeous Dorothy McGuire, Swiss Family Robinson) working at an elegant manse far from town targeted by a killer preying on disabled women. On a stormy night, she’s stranded in the house with her mistress (the grand dame of theater Ethel Barrymore) and a host of suspicious characters, one of whom may be the killer that’s out to get her. It’s great fun trying to pick out who may fall prey and who is doing the hunting throughout the house as the night wears on.
McGuire is lovely in the leading role, able to convey more with her eyes than any dialogue ever could. Recognizable forever as the Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester (Mary Poppins) is a hoot as the curious cook and you can see why later in her career the actress blossomed into a valued character actress that knows how to get the job done with flair. Barrymore steals the show out from under everyone, though, in her Oscar-nominated role as a cranky biddy that has a fondness for McGuire and pretty much no one else. She senses danger is afoot and tries to get McGuire to safety but by the time anyone figures out what’s happening it may be too late for them all.
What makes this such a memorable watch is how slyly it develops, never providing random misdirects or red herrings but letting the action flow from scene to scene in a naturalistic fashion. We’re not privy to any information not also available to our stalked star, nor are we kept in the dark as the killer’s motives gradually become clearer. While it has a too-quick finale (not uncommon for this era of filmmaking), the previous 87 minutes are quite entertaining, even a known watch-checker like myself didn’t notice the time passing at a rapid pace. Though made over 70 years ago, The Spiral Staircase keeps its shape in a superior fashion. While I haven’t seen any of the subsequent remakes over the years, a quick glance at the reviews tells me that you’re to avoid those at all costs and stick with the original.