Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Twirling Towards Freedom - The Spiral Staircase (1946)
When I have a free evening and am at a loss for what to watch, I pick up this bad boy, flip to a page and pick a movie. Last night's selection was Robert Siodmak's horror/thriller The Spiral Staircase (1946) which epitomizes the dark and stormy night story and is a precursor to films like Peeping Tom and Black Christmas. Combining elements of slasher films with a Gothic aesthetic, The Spiral Staircase is an engrossing yet stage-y thriller which does fall into the traps of many films from the 1940s.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, the majority of the film takes place in and around a small town in New England where handicapped women are being murdered. Every few years there is a spat of stranglings and no one has been able to catch the killer. The killings have started again and everyone is worried that Helen (Dorothy McGuire) who is mute after a childhood trauma is possibly next. Helen works in a mansion on the outskirts of the town caring for an ailing matriarch Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Mrs. Warren's step son, his secretary, her visiting son, Helen's doctor boyfriend and a contingent of nurses and housekeepers are all in the house that evening along with a sleepy bulldog and a window that seems to keep opening on its own. That, along with some killer POV shots make this not all that dissimilar to to any number of slashers. The first kill in the film happens early on when Helen is seeing a movie in town. A woman with a limp is upstairs getting changed and a killer lungs at her from the closet in a moment very reminiscent from the first kill in Black Christmas.
What truly sets The Spiral Staircase apart from other films of this genre is Nicholas Musuraca's amazing cinematography. Mururaca makes brilliant use of the titular staircase lighting it in a ways that mirror Nosfaratu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari creating extreme shots that mirror the decaying sanity of certain characters. This helps alieviate the larger problems in the story or the obvious killer and the tropes of films from this period. McGuire gives a wonderful performances as Helen but was hampered by her love story with the local doctor. Halfway through the film Mrs. Warren demands that Helen leave the house that very night and the Doctor will take her away. This is all well and good but the doctor says he knows of someone in Boston who will help treat her mute-ness and from his description it sounds like an early version of electroshock therapy which everyone seems very happy about because its a movie from the 40s set in the early years of the past century. But before the good doctor can attach his electrodes to his lady love he decides to try therapy on her by making her confront the situation that caused her to become mute. And if you've ever seen a movie from the 1940s you know he does this by yelling at her "face it!!" and shaking her like a baby.
The Spiral Staircase is an interesting experiment of blending popular cinema with European Gothic art-house aesthetics. While not always successful it is an enjoyable movie with a bulldog in it.