October Horror Movie Challenge: THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946)


It’s fascinating to see how prescient some movies were for trends that had yet to fully develop in their time. It’s been commented on before how Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946), despite the relative lack of urban grittiness and jaded anti-heroes, is a landmark of the film noir genre with its focus on and manipulation of shadows and the damaged psychology that serves as the wellspring for the murders at the story’s center. Perhaps more than that though, you can see the makings of the Italian gialli written all over this thing, most obviously in the appearance of the killer wearing those beautiful black leather gloves. There’s even a homicide performed just as the victim is fitting a garment over her head that was quoted in Dario Argento’s TENEBRE (1982) decades later. Siodmak’s venture hits the same poetic notes as some of Val Lewton’s best productions–not to mention featuring two veterans in actor Kent Smith (CAT PEOPLE) and American Gothic art direction by Albert S. D’Agostino–though at times it settles for a more routine thriller approach with sprinkles of warm-hearted humor involving Elsa Lanchester’s matronly maid and that lovable oaf of a bulldog Carleton. But when THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE wants to reach for the brass ring it goes for it, and it’s these moments that overwhelm everything in between in surreal gusto. The killer’s leering eye accompanied by Roy Webb’s DARK SHADOWS-esque score and a brilliantly choreographed slaying in a basement are easily some of the best standouts. They show a mad inventiveness and willingness to probe man’s darkest dreamings and desires, and no amount of expository background into the killer’s motives can match the intensity and mystery generated by the images of that damn vulture eye peering into the weaknesses of his victims. Let it also be said that even when restricted to a bed for 90% of her scenes, Ethel Barrymore could pack more character into a single sideways glance than some actors can in a lifetime. For another perspective, be sure to check out Kindertrauma’s take on the movie.

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