Descending The Spiral Staircase

In my part of the country, October is a magical month. The coming of All Hallow’s Eve with its mix of the profane and the divine, October 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 Professor Warren and Steven Warren, brothers of the same father. Mrs. Warren is Professor Warren’s mother, and has good reason not to trust Stephen, the prodigal son who turns up periodically. Whenever Steven is around, bad things happen. The supporting case 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.

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.

As the mystery unfolds, it becomes apparent that the killer must be someone in the Warren household, with the mute Helen as his next possible victim. A great storm rages without, and fear rules within. The spiral staircase plays its part beautifully, shadowed, with each turn bringing unknown terrors.

Treat yourself during this month of ghosts and spirits to a suspenseful and frightening piece of film-making that stands the test of time. The Spiral Staircase will not disappoint.


  1. Becky, I saw this film on TCM a few months ago and loved it. It is so suspenseful. The viewer is left wondering who is the killer. I think the best clue the viewer is given is the killer's eyebrow and not his eye. Great post.

  2. So this is where the post went? Phew! I thought u deleted it from the FilmPhiles blogpost all together, Becky, because of...Well, never mind. Anyway, I'm glad to find it here on the Halloween page.

  3. Becks, I have seen this movie many times, but reading your richly descriptive post has made me want to watch it again, which I am doing right now!

    Cagneyfan, that's part of the Halloween atmosphere...posts appear...they disappear...ther reappear somewhere else...