Starring Dorothy McGuire, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith, George Brent, Rhonda Fleming, Elsa Lanchester, Gordon Oliver
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Helen (McGuire) is a young woman working on an estate in turn-of-the-century Vermont. Traumatized in her youth to the point of muteness, her beau proposes to take her away to Boston, where the best doctors can attend to her, and where the two of them can start a new life together. Standing in their way is another man, a crazed killer, murdering women across town, who’s stalked Helen back to the estate and who takes his time emptying the large house until he can be alone with her.
The Spiral Staircase has all the base elements of a modern slasher film. It’s well ahead of its time in that way, a fascinating mixture of later horror tropes and earlier aesthetics: a compelling final girl, a masked (figuratively) killer, an isolated setting, a bevy of supporting characters/ victims paired with gorgeous black and white photography. The mystery, after 70 years of influencing other films, can be seen as basic, or, as I see it, a film stripped down to the core of what works. Helen is an excellent heroine; extremely vulnerable but not weak, not stupid. Either she can’t call out for help or there’s no help to be found or the help can’t be trusted. The mise-en-scène and lighting are consistently impressive; one standout sequence being a late murder where the victim’s strangled in the pitch-black center while her hands flail in the lit edges of the frame. Classic suspense.