In my part of the country, November shows its unique face with winds moaning and sighing through the trees in the dark of night, sudden storms of lightning and thunder and cold rain –- could there be a more perfect time for a movie of terror and suspense? If you don’t have such weather, you can experience it if you turn off the lights and watch The Spiral Staircase. Released in 1945, it is a story of a mad killer on the loose in turn of the century New England, raging storms and a house with plenty of shadows and fear at every turn. Imagine yourself on a stormy night with no electricity, moving through such a house with only a candle or dim lamp, and imagine making your way down a spiral staircase to a basement where horrors may lurk. Now you are in the mood.
The lovely Dorothy McGuire plays Helen, a lonely, vulnerable girl who was rendered mute by a mysterious traumatic experience in her childhood. She is companion to Mrs. Warren, played by Ethel Barrymore, a strong-willed, cranky invalid confined to her bed but sharp and domineering. George Brent and Gordon Oliver play step-brothers Professor Warren (born of the father's first wife) and Steven Warren, (born of the invalid Mrs. Warren). Mrs. Warren believes, to her sorrow, that she has reason not to trust her son Steven, the prodigal son who turns up periodically. Whenever Steven is around, bad things happen. The supporting cast is perfection, with Kent Smith as the sensible Dr. Parry, whose visits to Mrs. Warren fit perfectly with his desire to see Helen, Elsa Lanchester as the amusingly drunken cook, Rhys Williams as her rather sullen caretaker husband, a young Rhonda Fleming as the Professor’s secretary, Blanch, and the redoubtable Sarah Allgood as Mrs. Warren’s long-suffering and often insulted nurse
Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore) and Helen (Dorothy McGuire)
This household of complicated relationships, indeed the whole community, is shocked by the murders of young women, all with some kind of handicap. In a wonderful piece of film-making, we are allowed to see only the killer’s eye in extreme close-up as he hides in wait for his victim, and then see the victim through the killer’s eye as he stalks and kills. This perspective is chilling, and the music of composer Roy Webb heightens the chills.
Professor Warren (George Brent)
Steven Warren (Gordon Oliver)
Turn off lights, listen to the wind blow, and treat yourself to a suspenseful and frightening piece of film-making that stands the test of time. The Spiral Staircase will not disappoint.
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