FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Oct 22, 2006

Day 20- art objects

Today I took a gander at director Robert Siodmak's 1946 American Gothic masterpiece, The Spiral Staircase. The word that immediately comes to mind is "remarkable".

Early in the 20th century, a black-gloved serial killer is strangling young women with various "afflictions", such as disfigurements and other handicaps. Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire), mute since experiencing a traumatic childhood event, is likely the killer's next victim.

During one long, dark, stormy night, Helen is holed up in the Warren Mansion, where she's been tending to the bedridden Warren matriarch (Ethyl Barrymore). Before long, the killer is in the house as well- who is it? Will Helen survive, unable to call for help?

I can say, unequivocally, that I've never seen a more beautiful black and white film. Every shot in the movie, from the very first (the opening sequence is easily on par with Hitchcock's best) to the last, feels deliberate. Each moment throughout is staged and lit for maximum effect, and the cinematography (by Nicholas Musuraca) is astonishing in both focal and tonal depths. The print quality of the DVD is pristine, and I felt myself simply gawking at the screen.

Performances throughout the film range from serviceable to outstanding, in particular that of Dorothy McGuire, who manages to hold her own against the formidable Ethyl Barrymore- all without saying a word. McGuire is more than capable of conveying all the emotions required and hitting all the right notes with facial expressions and body language. Again, I could only gawk.

The Spiral Staircase is a suspenseful little gothic flick with some tense sequences- there's romance, thunderstorms, a spooky old mansion, cobwebs, a bedridden old woman, and a black-gloved killer lurking in the shadows. As a horror fan, it's easy to find traces of later horror films in evidence here; the film is undoubtedly a precursor to the gialli films of Dario Argento and company.

For all the obvious achievements of The Spiral Staircase, though, I was left emotionally unmoved. As I was watching it, I felt as if I was looking at a piece of art that I could admire aesthetically- in an academic fashion. Everything about the film was masterful, from the acting to the directing to the set design to the photography, and yet I wasn't invested beyond a simple sort of appreciation. It's tough to rate a movie like this. Should you see it? Yes. Maybe it'll affect you differently, on more levels...I don't know. It sure was pretty.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting dilemma, Stacie Ponder - the film looked good, was well made, had pretty good performances, but didn't move you. Hmmm... That's actually a fairly common problem with today's studio movies, too. I guess "The Spiral Staircase" was ahead of it's time.

Stacie Ponder said...

It was just sort of odd...I was sitting there appreciating the movie while not being particularly effected by it. I also figured out who the killer was pretty early on, so I wasn't all wrapped up in the drama.

Good stuff, though.

cattleworks said...

I have not seen this movie.
But my mom has been UNABLE to watch this movie. Years ago she tried watching it on TV, and she got too scared.
Recently, it was on cable, and she figured, oh, I should be able to watch it NOW.
Nope. Still creeped her out too much. Still doesn't know how it ends.
So, like any doting son, I bought
her the DVD!
My reasoning: she can watch it during the day! At least find out what happens.
She just looked at me like I was evil and mean.
But I'll have to borrow it now to check it out after everything you described about it.

melizer said...

Am I the only other person who has seen this movie? I was completely caught up in the suspense. I was on the edge of my seat, biting my nails, and yelling instructions out loud to Helen. I did NOT realize who the killer was earlier than I was supposed to. I thought it was wonderful!