THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE has always seemed much older than it actually is to me. I think that's because my first viewing of it was on a particularly blanched-out VHS tape and because although it was made in the mid-forties it takes place about thirty years earlier. The irony is that this seasoned flick resembles and predicts, in various ways, many a beloved blood-soaked horror movie that hadn't been born yet. Please grab a candle and follow me. Let's investigate some of this groovy granny's many instances of cinematic precognition!
Our movie opens with a bunch of folks watching another movie. This is clever because it creates a subconscious pecking order that insinuates that what we're watching is more real than what they are watching. It's almost meta, I'd say, and reminds me of other films that springboard from movies like HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE, ANGUISH and SCREAM 2.
Hey, the killer is hiding in the closet and it's all BLACK CHRISTMAS-like! And here comes an intimate POV shot of the victim preparing for bed a' la HALLOWEEN! We're also privy to a patch of voyeuristic eyeball images that predate PEEPING TOM and PSYCHO. Shortly we'll find out that our murderer only kills a specific type (those who have an "affliction" of some sort) and that's kinda SILENCE OF THE LAMBS-ish and ahead of its time too.
Our sweet heroine is Helen (DOROTHY McGUIRE) and like so many future horror protagonists, she has not quite discovered her own power and (literally in this case) voice yet. She's a humble outsider and she's got a traumatic past that made her that way. We the audience know that there is more to Helen than she realizes and only the most wretched would not route for her. Helen is a nice name especially when you imagine it whispered by TONY TODD.
Here's a rainy wooded stalking scene! Yay for rainy woods and let me cite FRIDAY THE 13th for frequently understanding the primordial power of them. The lurker is a giallo shadow puppet. He disappears into a tree like Freddy Krueger and all his slicker is missing is a hook to complete the I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER look that's all the rage this fall.
Oh no, dropped keys! Laurie Strode can tell you how important keys are. I like that this key is a big old classic cartoon key like in HELL NIGHT.
Helen has a paranoid fantasy about her well-grounded love interest Dr. Parry (CAT PEOPLE's KENT SMITH). In it, the two rejoice on their dreamy wedding day but when the time comes to exchange vows, Helen blows it while a critical crowd looks down their collective noses. Very CARRIE and very "They're all going to laugh at you!" as the words "Say I do." repeat over and over.
BLACK CHRISTMAS's secret boozer Mrs. Mac has got nothing on SPIRAL's Mrs. Oates who swipes hooch and drinks herself into a coma state. ELSA LANCHESTER who just ten years earlier played both Mary Shelly and the monster's mate in "THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN" portrays Mrs. Oates.
Secretary Blanch (RHONDA FLEMING) knows when to ditch a bad scene. When she goes into the basement (!) to grab a suitcase she bumps into her final fate instead. As in the original FRIDAY THE 13th (when the series was still in the whodunit? mode) Blanch sees her attacker and we don't. She's scarred at first, recognizes her assailer and remarks, "Oh, it's you! You scared the life out of me!" before she is horrifically slain. Aw, this bit also brings back fond memories of the weight-lifting kill from HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. It's such a relief to be on friendly terms with your murderer.
Speaking of HBTM (not to mention many a giallo), check out these fashionable tight black murder gloves! So hip it hurts.
Sneaky shoes = DRESSED TO KILL.
As in many a slasher, in the end, it all comes down to a cat and mouse showdown between our honorable heroine and the emotionally vacant killer (whose identity I'm not revealing). In this suspense-filled scene Helen is oh so very close to getting much needed aid from a visiting constable. He's so close and yet so far and the chance for rescue is frustratingly missed! This reminds me so much of my favorite moment in THE FUNHOUSE when Amy can see her parents just outside the window but her calls for help and recognition cannot be heard. Helen of course cannot scream at all. It's so sad and tragic, like not being able to connect to a hand-wringing Aunty Em in a crystal ball.
If you haven't seen this movie, I can't bare to ruin any more than I already have. If you want to find out if our pal Helen survives, you'll just have to WATCH IT. My lips are sealed.