Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Spiral Staircase(1946): An Eerie Walk Through the Woods

PhotobucketOne of the best suspense films of the 1940's neither directed by Alfred Hitchcock nor produced by Val Lewton, "The Spiral Staircase" is the story of a young woman who was frightened so much as a child by the loss of her parents that she cannot speak a word.

She comes to care for an older bedridden woman (Ethel Barrymore) who lives in a creepy mansion in early 20th Century New England. A grown step-son who is a college professor and another son who is a odd and lasivious character also are at the mansion, along with an assortment of other servants and nurses.

A series of murders of young women with physical afflictions is taking place in the local town. The constable believes the killer may be hiding near the mansion in question. One dark and stromy night later, all is revealed.

Elsa Lanchester from "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) also is in this film as Mrs. Oates, the family cook, who doesn't mind "a nip" or two of brandy after a long (or short) day in the kitchen. I have never seen a movie featuring an old dark house where Elsa Lanchester is on staff that would entice a sane person to a weekend visit.

Directed by Robert Siodmak, who also directed "The Killers"(1945), probably the best adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway short story on film, this movie may not be as bloody as post-1970's crop of modern thrillers, but I doubt anyone would be able to watch it alone in a dark house (or, worse, in an empty old theater!) around midnight and not get a serious case of the yips.

Dorothy McGuire--a undeservedly not well-remembered leading lady--gives a fine performance as the mute girl. She received only one Academy Award nomination in her career despite many good performances.


  1. I've got a version of this one in my film collection. It's everything you said it was.

  2. Bloody eugenicists, is there a branch of the Rockefeller Foundation nearby I wonder? If I was a gumshoe on the case that would be the first place I'd look for the heinous killer Doug.

  3. EEEK scary film.... where there are spiral staircases there is always a psychopath not very far away, or so it seems to me anyway Doug

  4. You raise a provocative and interesting point here, AA!

    Perhaps the author of this story or stage play was originally written in part as a protest against locking people up or being cruel in some way to people with human imprefections. I'll see what I can find on the primary source of this.

    And I wouldn't be surprised if the author had a bone or two to pick with the likes of John D. Rockefeller or any of the other activist social Darwinists he may have sponsored. It is set in 1916, at a time when progressives and radicals were in a tough poltical contest with the likes of John D and others.

  5. I found it a scary film, AA. The way the killer is first revealed on the grounds of the house in the foreground of a long shot after a flash of lighting is an excellent touch. Most movies of that time would have been less subtle.

    Yes, spiral architecture seems to draw the worst kind of multiple-victim killers in my lay readings and viewings of murder stories, AA. "Use the elevator--alone-- whenever possible", as my Uncle Moab always said. He had a cellmate on D block at San Quinten Prison who once...but I digress.

    A good old-fashioned straight working/middle-class stairway will never serve you wrong, especially when its well-lighted!

    I'd have sharp words with my hosts or the property agency if I had to go down to the coal cellar under such dimly-lit conditions!

    And as for Elsa Lanchester on staff...and in the kitchen no less! What the heck?!