Film Review: The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Also known as: Silence of Helen McCord (working title), Some Must Watch (working title)
Release Date: February 7th, 1946 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Mel Dinelli
Based on: Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Elsa Lanchester

Vanguard Films, RKO Radio Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“The only thing that keeps me from cracking you in the jaw is the almost certain possibility that it would break your neck.” – Dr. Parry

The Spiral Staircase isn’t specifically categorized as horror. It is categorized as a thriller but it is definitely horror in its subject matter and in its ability to build suspense and give you a real sense of terror. Plus, the opening moments of a woman dressing, as the camera closes in on an eye watching her from a hidden position is chilling and nightmare inducing by 1940s standards.

The story follows a mute girl (Dorothy McGuire) who is targeted by a serial killer that picks off young women with disabilities. She lives in a mansion, taking care of a wealthy bedridden woman (Ethel Barrymore). The woman, as well as the girl’s doctor, urge her to leave the house. The doctor knows the cause of the girl’s muteness and wants to cure her.

The film really has similar notes to a slasher or giallo movie without the violence. It also predates giallo by several decades.

The film is dark and moody but it is just as beautiful as it is haunting. It has great cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, who did amazing work in the horror/noir hybrids Cat People, The Curse of the Cat PeopleThe Seventh VictimBedlam and The Ghost Ship. He also did the beloved noir classic Out of the Past. With the direction of Robert Siodmak, this film was helmed by two artists who were masters of creating atmosphere and visual suspense.

This is a solid psychological thriller and an atmospheric gem. The acting is better than average and the music is also really good, adding to the slow build of dread in this film.

I actually find it surprising that this RKO horror/noir creation was not produced by Val Lewton, who was the mastermind behind most of these pictures for the studio. It was produced by Dore Schary, who would eventually go on to be the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

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