Jacqueline Bisset is terrorized in an “old dark house” in this creaky 1970s remake of Robert Siodmak’s masterful 1945 thriller THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE.
Young Helen Mallory (Jacqueline Bisset, THE MEPHISTO WALTZ) has been unable to speak ever since witnessing the deaths of her husband and daughter in a tragic house fire. She is staying with her ailing diabetic grandmother Mrs. Sherman (Mildred Dunnock, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY) at her country estate which has been turned into an institute for measuring business executive acumen by Mrs. Sherman’s psychiatrist son Joe (Christopher Plummer, THE PYX). Helen’s doctor and boyfriend Dr. Rawley (John Ronane, KING RAT) can find no physical cause of Helen’s condition and has convinced her to go to a clinic for treatment; and not a moment too soon since there have been five murders of handicapped women in the past year. Although Helen is due to leave the next day, Mrs. Sherman wants her to leave immediately because she “can smell fear” and thinks that Helen is in danger. The lights go out and Joe’s efforts to lock up the house and keep the possible lurking killer outside seem to be all for naught as someone is stalking Helen through the halls. Is the killer Joe’s Vietnam vet brother Steven (John Phillip Law, DIABOLIK), his lovely secretary Blanche (Gayle Hunnicutt, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE), Mrs. Sherman’s exasperated nurse (Elaine Stritch, PIGEONS), the protective handyman Oates (Ronald Radd, THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND), or his soused wife (Sheila Brennan, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF)?
Even if you haven’t seen the Siodmak film – which attributes its screenplay’s basis firstly to the 1945 screenplay by Mel Dinelli (THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER) and then to Ethel Lina White’s novel “Some Must Watch” – the identity of the killer is fairly obvious (one of the stills on the back of Warner’s cover artwork makes it even more obvious); and this remake of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE ends up being a disappointment for fans of traditional mystery and suspense while being a pleasant diversion for those who can accept its flaws. The mess of a screenplay is credited to “Andrew Meredith” which is actually a pseudonym for regular screenwriting partners Chris Bryant (STEALING HEAVEN) and Allan Scott (D.A.R.Y.L.), who had previously collaborated on the script for Nicolas Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW (Scott would continue on throughout the 1980s and 1990s as a scenarist for Roeg) and would later adapt Bram Stoker’s “The Jewel of the Seven Stars” into Mike Newell’s THE AWAKENING. Whereas Dorothy Maguire’s heroine in the original film was the old lady’s paid companion, here the protagonist is her granddaughter (presumably because companions were less fashionable in the 1970s). Stritch (who was living in England in the 1970s while married John Bay, an American working as a screenwriter in British television) is perfectly suited here to the role of the crotchety nurse. The flashbacks to Helen’s trauma are shot in such a tiresome manner (canted angle, filters, echoey voices) that they have no real emotional resonance (at least not enough to parcel it out into three separate parts), and a mute Bisset is expressive enough not to need them. Director Peter Collinson (OPEN SEASON) is also pretty much on autopilot with the old dark house-isms and the added soap opera antics of Joe, Blanche and Steven.
Although the setting is ostensibly American, the locations are obviously British: the surprisingly well-lit “old dark house” previously served as a stalking ground for Mia Farrow’s blind heroine in Richard Fleischer’s SEE NO EVIL. Texan Hunnicutt has always been a favorite of mine, but here she’s saddled with a horrid Tennessee Williams-esque Southern accent, and even Canadian actor Plummer’s American accent seems forced. Wanamaker has almost nothing to do as the “shoot first ask questions later” cop, and Ranone makes almost no impression at all as Bisset’s love interest (although he is accorded less screen time than Kent Smith in the Siodmak version). Christopher Malcolm (TV’s ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS) has an early role here as a cop. The cinematography of Ken Hodges (THE SHUTTERED ROOM) is always attractive but pedestrian, and never approaches the style of Nicholas Musuraca (CAT PEOPLE) in the Siodmak film. The POV shots are nothing special, and the image – seen by the killer – of Helen’s reflection having no mouth is only referenced in the dialogue and never visualized. As far as this film goes in the brief directorial career of Collinson – who died in 1980 at age 44 – THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is closer to his TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1975) than FRIGHT (1971) which was an even earlier slasher prototype than BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974). The film certainly suffers in repeated comparison to the 1945 film, but it feels more like a companion piece to Hammer’s PSYCHO-thrillers (more FEAR IN THE NIGHT than the 1960s ones).
Warner Archive’s DVD-R features a single-layer, progressive anamorphic widescreen (1.83:1) transfer that starts off a bit rough during the opening credits which look more than a bit soft (this may be the cheap opticals). The matting may seem tight on top depending on your TV’s overscan, but seems generally well-framed. While the transfer hasn’t been cleaned up – with the odd scratch and reel change marks – the image becomes quite gorgeous once the film moves into the old dark house, looking like an actual Technicolor-processed feature than I remember from the old Warner VHS (which gave off a TV movie vibe). The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is without fault. There are absolutely no extras, and the generic main menu screen (with a background of the Warner studio lot) features only a “play” option. (Eric Cotenas)
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