7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Who will live, who will die in this eerie mansion during a storm-swept night?,
This review is from: Spiral Staircase [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
A forbidding mansion far from town, a night of driving rain and thunder, a mute young woman who works for the ill matriarch, a spiral staircase that goes down to the shadowy basement...and a killer who strangles women who are "imperfect."
The Spiral Staircase may not be full of frights, but it is an eerie exploration of suspense. The mansion itself is a great prop. Lit by candles and gas light, the rooms, covered with flocked wallpaper, are filled with flickering shadows, deep velvet curtains, carved marble fireplaces and dark oaken tables. Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire), who became mute when she was a child, works there as a maid. She helps care for Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), the bedridden, ill and strong-willed matron of the house. Mrs. Warren has a son, Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), an unreliable ne'er-do-well, and a stepson, Professor Albert Warren (George Brent). She has no illusions. "They are both weaklings," she says.
In the village, young women are being strangled...one had a limp, another was simple minded, one had a scar on her face. It's not long before we realize Helen is on the killer's list, and that the killer is most likely someone who lives in the Warren mansion. One person who seems drawn to Helen is Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), the new physician in the village. He is convinced that Helen can be made to speak and wants to take her to Boston for treatment. Mrs. Warren, although bedridden and often irascible, is no fool about the murders. When Helen is late coming home in the evening from the village, Mrs. Warren tells her, "Come here. I'd hoped you were never coming back. You should run away. Leave this house tonight if you know what's good for you!" During the long night, however, the killer shows his determination to make Helen his next victim.
It's not too hard to figure out who the killer most likely is. Since Dorothy McGuire is the star of the movie, it's also unlikely that her character will be killed. What makes this movie work so well, in my opinion, are several elements. First, not whether Helen will be killed, but what dangers will Helen face unable to call for help, including a final confrontation with the killer? Second, who among the supporting cast will be killed? There is the professor's secretary, Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), the cook (Elsa Lanchester), her husband (Rhys Williams) and the nurse (Sara Algood). It's unlikely all will live. Third, the production values of the movie. The Spiral Staircase is beautifully staged and filmed, with each shot framed for maximum creepy effect. The descent to the basement, where one killing takes place and another is attempted, is almost worth the price of the DVD itself. The place is deeply shadowed with wooden trusses and brick walls, piles of cut wood and an axe, heavy casks and rows of cobwebbed wine bottles...so many places to hide, and the only light coming from candles so easy to blow out. Fourth, the killings are subtly handled, which makes them all the more unsettling. The murderer is never shown until the end. Before then we only see his eyes. We never see the actual killings, either, only black shadow and white hands clutching at the air. And fifth, the performances of Dorothy McGuire and Ethel Barrymore. McGuire, in my view, was a fine actress with an innate quality of goodness about her. We worry about Helen because of McGuire's skill and personality. Barrymore was a dominant actress in all her roles. Here, bedridden, she must act with her eyes and her face. She becomes an implacable old woman who sees that justice is done.