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THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent, Ethel Barrymore, Kent Smith, Gordon Oliver
Director: Robert Siodmak
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: MGM
Features: Trailer
Length: 84 minutes
Release Date: October 4, 2005

"Anything can happen in the dark."

Film *** ½

The town, at first glance, might appear much as any like-minded country village had before it.  Its buildings were brickwork or wooden, elaborately etched by the weathered stain of seasons past.  A coiffure of languorous trees hovered lazily over the town, idle eavesdroppers to whatever drama might extricate itself from the daily ennui.  A single street sufficed as the major throughway, although it could hardly be proclaimed as anything beyond an ordinary country lane.  One town constable kept the general order, rarely to be occasioned by the vituperation of a rabble-rouser.  One doctor, whose crusty exterior befitted a man long anchored to the region, tended to the usual ailments common for a rural milieu - the various rot-foots, croupy coughs, and sundry maladies of constitution.

Amenities were of a basic design here, entertainment no more so.  A small vaudeville hall, on days of protracted sun-light, might present a variety of flickies for the amusement of children and their bored parents.  But those of a more mercurial pursuit might partake in a stroll by foot up the avenue, or a ride by carriage, where stood perhaps the sole, distinctive landmark of this pastoral mien, the Warren estate.

For there, of late - in that lair of decadent affluence, a rotten core eroding outwardly through its crumbling foundations - resided the root of local evil, ready to dispel this illusion of tranquility.  Whispers abounded of madness under guise of subterfuge that dwelled within the House of Warren.  It was from this most grave of houses that a series of foul murders had patterned itself, reaching out even into the town to arouse a frisson of terror among all.  There was a killer afoot with an insatiable appetite for the meek and defenseless.  Three innocents had fallen afoul of the killer's voyeuristic eye; who then to be the fourth?  The first victim had been a scar-faced girl of no particular note other than her singular misfortune of catching the killer's fancy.  The second girl had been a simple-minded creature, perhaps incapable of recognizing the danger even as its hands tightened about her nape.  The third girl had been a cripple, a pretty thing but lame, unable to out-run a pursuer who had hidden in her boudoir to await the proper moment of unveiling.

Whatever the truth behind these odious crimes, this much was certain - the Warren name was attached in some depraved manner to this regrettable affair.  The Warren manor, where one could drown in sheer opulence!  But luxurious self-disposition, tempered by the vice of contempt for poverty and human compassion, had bred a manner of coldness, that the unyielding Warren code of honor - 'the strong survive, the weak die' - be upheld to extreme prejudice.

The Warren patriarch, through chronic abuse of liquors, had long since departed earthly endeavours, in demise rendered spirit by spirits.  The mother was an invalid who clung unreasonably to life and savagely berated those who sought to protest otherwise.  Her ramblings of delirium compelled caution from the very spawn and scullions of her care - the elder, splenetic Albert, the younger, insolent Stephen, most particularly the mute girl Helen, a naïve servant whose dumb affliction provided the Warren matriarch some amusement through one-sided arguments.  One son estranged, the other unloved, and the mother maddened by long confinement to quarters embroidered beyond the practical enjoyment of one so constricted in motion - such was the curse pronounced upon this house, where to enter was to spiral into certain despair, this malignant illness of the mind and senses.

The girl Helen, by virtue of her very silence, had thus far escaped the demon-tongue of bitterness and malice that enveloped these Warrens.  But she was weak, too, imperfect in womanhood, and through extrapolation of the evidence hereto laid forth, under siege of attentive regard from an unknown assailant drawn to handicaps of physical attributions.

The skies would echo with the drenched howls of chilled mistrals the fateful evening when Death was again summoned forth to the House of Warren.  Dark envoys heralded His arrival; pregnant clouds venting vaporous bile; barren trees weeping dying leaves; skeletal branches clawing at the manor windows, demanding passage; shadows that melted like black tar upon the empty and gaping corridors of the house.  Death's cold kiss beckoned the mute Helen with a pre-ordained confidence, for by the dead of night, the safety of the early dawn might be as an eternity away as a few hours.

If Helen's will to survive the night was strong, so it was tempered by an equal determination to the contrary.  Somewhere in the House of Warren lurked a killer, possessed by a madness of blood-lust, ready to do Death's bidding, ready to claim...a fourth victim!

Video ** ½

The Spiral Staircase is shown in its original black & white, full-frame format.  The bit transfer rate averages around 5-6 Mbps.  Considering the film's age, the image quality is fairly pleasant and clean with only moderate graininess and a few minor scratches.

Audio **

The monaural audio is serviceable but nothing extraordinary.  We miss the voice of the lovely Dorothy McGuire, who in playing the mute girl Helen has no lines of consequence in this film.  Note the inventive inclusion of Beethoven's Pathétique sonata at the beginning of the film.

Features Zero stars

There is a trailer for Secret Window (with Johnny Depp).

Summary:

She has no mouth but she must scream!  For viewers who prefer their horror in the classic gothic romance style, The Spiral Staircase is the right film for a dark and stormy night.

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