Our film begins at the dawn of the 20th Century, and in a local hotel, they’re playing silent motion pictures in the lobby. In the audience, a beautiful woman, Helen, a mute, watches the film with great joy, and tears swelling her eyes, moved by the beautiful images on screen. But the beauty is short lived. Upstairs, a young woman, a cripple, is violently murdered, strangled by an unknown assailant.
And so begins The Spiral Staircase, one of the best thrillers of the 1940’s. The city is in a grip of fear thanks to a strange serial killer who targets people with different ailments or deformities, human imperfections, if you will. Helen, a mute, has every reason to be afraid. She’s a maid working in a mansion of a dying mother (played by the legendary Ethel Barrymore). There, the mother lives with her two sons, whom she is ashamed of for not being the strong hunter types their father wanted. We soon learn, however, that the murderer is in the house, and closer than Helen may have imagined. The performances in this film are what makes it so good, particularly that of Dorothy McGuire, our lead. She is able to present a lot of humanity and pathos, making her character extremely sympathetic and relatable without the necessity of any kind of dialogue. Ethel Barrymore is great as well, although her role is a little brief. She does have a lot of command in her performance, and seems hell-bent on hating everyone in sight. This role got her an Oscar nomination, which is easy to see why. We also get a bit part from the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester, as a drunken cockney maid, and gets most of the comic relief. The film is important for many reasons. Not only was it a more reality-based horror film, something that would pre-date Psycho in many ways, but it was also the earliest influence on the giallo genre, a particular type of thriller that would come out of Italy during the late sixties till the dawn of the eighties. But unlike most giallo, this movie is very subtle, much more cerebral, and much more gothic. And while in most giallos you figure out who the killer is a long time before the movie is over, this one comes as a genuine, unexpected surprise. It’s an excellent film