Wednesday, December 5, 2018
The Spiral Staircase (1946)
Well damn, I figured I'd give this thing a shot again. I watch movies. I watch a lot of movies, though not as many as I used to. I guess I'm getting old. Not as old as this movie I watched called The Spiral Staircase. This picture was good, possibly great, certainly unique. Set in early 20th century, in a small New England town. A talkie set during the silent film era featuring a protagonist who can't talk. She's mute as a result of some trauma or other. I wonder if not being able to vocally communicate plays into this particular story about a murderer who stalks disabled women? Also, this film's views on disabled women is......interesting? The first victim is described as "dim witted"? I think one victim was described as "lame" which is a thing people used to say about people that....couldn't walk well? Now they just say it about horses and this blog, any blog. Also, I think one victim had a scar or something. So, this killer targets women that are vulnerable is the point.
The picture opens in the screening room at some Inn where a projectionist cranks a lever and projects a silent film on a wall. The crowd gasps, gawks, oohs and ahhs. There's an old lady providing live piano accompaniment. It's not unlike most arthouse theaters today. The movie they're watching is called "The Kiss". It looks bad, but was probably the highlight of the year for most of these hicks in the year of our lord 1906. Anyway, while the picture plays downstairs a poor, "lame", woman is murdered in her room upstairs. We see the killer's eye peering out from the closet as she changes. He descends, she screams, the crowd downstairs reacts and moves upstairs to check out the ruckus. This was a silent film after all...and also it wasn't called "The Scream". Missed opportunity.
By the time they make it upstairs, the woman is dead (strangled) and the assailant has vanished. Our main character was at the picture show. Her name's Helen. She's a mute. She gets a ride home with Dr. Parry who tended to the dead woman. Her home is the Warren estate, where she works tending to the bedridden matriarch Mrs. Warren. On the ride home (horse and buggy style) they encounter, who I immediately deemed suspect #1, Freddy. Freddy's a young lad who stops the doctor in hopes he'll stop to check in on his ailing father. Dr. Parry takes a rain check. He's too busy being smitten with Helen. Freddy's a creepy little kid. I forgot to snap a picture of my television screen so you'll just have to take my word for it. He's definitely suspect material. We don't see him again. I wonder what happened to his papa? Also, everyone's ailing in this fucking town. His pa was probably in his 30s, but I imagine he looked to be about 65.
So, they finally reach the Warren home and this is where the movie decides to stay for the duration. It's a big house, gothic as shit. There's even a spiral staircase in there somewhere. It's an incredible location. The house contains a cast of characters and the rest of our suspects. We've got Professor Albert Warren, the oldest son. We've got Steven Warren, the youngest son recently back from Paris. His arrival home correlates precisely with the start of the murders. Maybe too obvious. There's Nurse Barker, the cantankerous care provider for Mrs Warren that everyone seems to hate, especially Carlton the Bull Dog. We've got Blanche, the young woman the two Warren brothers fight over. And then there's Mr and Mrs Oates who I had trouble placing in the context of what was happening. As far as I could tell, they lived at the estate (maybe caretakers?) and Mrs Oates was drinking all of Mrs Warren's brandy (and possibly her ether too). And then there's this guy, Nurse Barker's arch nemesis and an obvious suspect.
Nurse Barker trips over him constantly and refers to him more than once as a "useless loaf". At this point, I can't be positive that the eye I saw staring at victim #1 from her bedroom closet wasn't a dog's eye.
So, we got an old fashioned whodunit with some decidedly modern trappings. It's almost a proto-slasher or even a proto-giallo. Women die while the killer remains unknown until the end. There's even the old person (Mrs Warren) telling the young woman (Helen) to leave and never come back if she knows what's good for her which is not that far off from the old coot at the gas station warning the kids away from Camp Crystal Lake in whatever Friday the 13th film that happened in. Probably all of them. Helen not being able to speak must have seemed like a masterstroke at the time but if you hired the wrong actress it could be a disaster. Luckily, this actress has an expressive enough face and vintage silent era eyes.
Truthfully, I'm not really sure how to categorize this movie. It's a mashup. We've got a horror picture. Light and shadow used to creepy perfection, especially when characters descend down the stairway or into the basement. There's a film noir buried in here somewhere as well. Consider this wonderful line from Dr. Parry (did I mention he's lusting after Helen?) in response to Stephen making a lewd comment directed towards her: "The only thing keeping me from striking you in the jaw is the absolute certainty that it will break your neck". He's a doctor so we kinda believe him. There's also a bit of a love story which culminates when Helen has a fucking bizarre waking dream where she is getting married to the doctor but gets stuck on the "I do" part. The men in this picture also say things like "run along now" to the women after they've grown tired of them. Imagine that line making it's way into a picture today? That would be weird.
This was made 20+ years prior to Wait Until Dark and in that one at least Audrey Hepburn could speak. I won't spoil the finale or the reveal of the killer only to say it was (the finale) and wasn't (the reveal) shocking. I can't imagine what audiences must have thought. The film grossed under $900,000 at the time but doesn't that translate into something like 8 billion dollars today? I have no idea. Whatever, this is a good one.