Looking at the flicks that paved the way for Halloween and the heyday of slasher movies.
THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945)
That’s right… 1945. Set the WABAC Machine, Sherman.*
The Spiral Staircase is a ‘prestige’ picture from RKO, set in the early 1900’s, about a serial killer who targets women with disabilities. It reaches its climax when the killer terrorizes a mute servant (Dorothy McGuire) in the stately home of her employer (Ethel Barrymore in an Oscar-nominated performance). Is it possible that McGuire might be cinema’s original Final Girl?
The Spiral Staircase is filmed in a manner as close to Hitchcock as director Robert (Son of Dracula) Siodmak can muster, with a few inventive additions of his own.
Perhaps the creepiest moment that the film has to offer is a precursor to the original Black Christmas when we spy the killer’s eye staring from inside a closet. Then there are the moments when we see the victims through the killer’s eyes as when the mute McGuire appears with the lower part of her face blank; only flesh where her mouth should be. There are also a couple of moments that will be echoed later in Dario Argento’s gialli (cousin to the American slasher flick) that are of interest. Some fine performances, including one from the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester, as the somewhat irritating cook, also enliven proceedings.
But unfortunately, the film as a whole is a bit of a letdown. Perhaps because it has to live up to the aforementioned prestige tag, the film fails to engage the viewer in its short 84-minute running time. Another problem with the film is its focus on the relatively pedestrian mystery of the killer’s identity. Is the kindly doctor (Kent ‘Cat People’ Smith) the killer? Maybe it’s one of Barrymore’s sons (Gordon Oliver and George Brent)? And finally, a third problem that drags The Spiral Staircase just below the must-see notch for the general horror fan, is the fact that it feels like a stage play rather than a film most of the time.
Despite this, The Spiral Staircase’s influence on our beloved slasher genre can’t be denied. Anyone with an interest is seeing where some of the conventions of 80’s slashers originated should check it out. At 84 minutes, what do you have to lose? Oh, and if you want to see just how much further below the must-see line this story can go, check out the 1975 remake starring Jacqueline Bisset or the 2002 TV remake with Nicollette Sheridan. Ay carumba!
* If this reference doesn’t mean anything to you, check out Sherman and Mister Peabody in any episode of Peabody’s Improbable History on Youtube.