Director: Robert Siodmak
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

One of the great overlooked thrillers from the 1940s is RKO Pictures’ THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. Also known as RKO Radio Pictures, the company was synonymous with low-budget B classics that often reached an A level status such as THE BODY SNATCHER, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, ON DANGEROUS GROUND, STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR, and CITIZEN KANE on their resume. After THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE was announced for a Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics last year, this classic at long last has made its debut in high definition.

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, based on the 1933 Ethel Lina White novel entitled Some Must Watch, is a story about a mute caregiver, Helen (Dorothy McGuire, THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE) who has become a target for a serial killer who murders people because they are imperfect, physically or otherwise. One day, while watching a silent film at an inn, Helen sees a dead woman in her room. Frightened to death, a close friend, Dr. Parry (Kent Smith, CAT PEOPLE, NORA PRENTISS, THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE) drives her back home which is a huge mansion in New England, occupied by the wealthy Warren family. The family consists of Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore, PORTRAIT OF JENNY) who Helen is taking care of, her son Steven (Gordon Oliver, MY FORBIDDEN PAST), and her stepson, Professor Albert Warren (George Brent, BABY FACE, DARK VICTORY). Also living in the household are live-in housekeeper Mrs. Oates (Elsa Lanchester, the bride from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN herself!), her handyman husband Mr. Oates (Rhys Williams, MAN IN THE ATTIC), secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming, OUT OF THE PAST, SLIGHTLY SCARLET) and Nurse Barker (Sara Allgood, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN). When Helen arrives home, Mrs. Warren — worried about Helen’s safety — requests that she leave the house and go to Boston with her close friend Dr. Parry. He also wants Helen to come with him, allowing him work on Helen being able to speak again. When this is agreed upon, Dr. Parry makes preparations, but not before he makes a house call to a patient. Blanche goes to the basement to get Helen’s suitcases for her departure, and is suddenly murdered. The killer is actually inside the house and ready to strike Helen, who has no one to help her except for bedridden Mrs. Warren.

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is an excellent movie. Director Robert Siodmak did a tremendous job blending together various genres including drama, mystery, thriller, romance and horror. The horror elements are caused by the dark and stormy night atmosphere, along with a crazy psycho killer. Especially intense is the climax, taking place on a night with thunderstorms where Helen is running for her life all over the house from the psycho but is unable to scream or call for help. Top-billed Dorothy McGuire is fantastic as the mute, frightened Helen being stalked by a homicidal maniac. Her facial expressions and her ability to show emotions without saying a word are incredible. The rest of the veteran cast also hand in their usual stellar performances. Ethel Barrymore was especially outstanding in her role, as she received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. The man behind the excellent cinematography was Nicholas Musuraca, who was no stranger to thrillers as he also shot CAT PEOPLE, THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE SEVENTH VICTIM. Roy Webb provides the thrilling, rousing soundtrack which is bound to make you feel anxious.

It had been stated by employees of Kino Lorber that they were not happy with the original HD master that was intended to be used, which led to the film’s delay on Blu-ray while searching for better film elements. Eighteen months after it was first announced by Kino Lorber, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE makes its initial Blu-ray release. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:33:1, in 1080p HD and given a 4K scan of the restored fine-grain master, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE looks remarkable. Black levels look rich and well-balanced with an excellent greyscale. The image is crisp, sharp and polished with deep textures and fine details throughout the presentation. There are some speckles, and some mild print damage in some areas, but nothing that comes close to ruining the viewing experience. It certainly bests the previous MGM and Anchor Bay DVD releases that came out over a decade ago. The lossless English DTS-HD Master 2.0 track comes in quite strong. The dialog is pleasant and mellow, while the music and sounds of the thunderstorm which lasts for the entire film are aggressive. There are optional English subtitles for this release.

Special Features include an audio commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith who shares a lot of insight, thoughts and background about the film. She discusses the themes of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, comparing the film to the work Alfred Hitchcock, referred to as a “Hitchcockian style”. Also in the supplemental package is a 1945 Screen Directors Playhouse Radio Broadcast of "THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE" with Dorothy McGuire and Robert Siodmak. Out of all the film’s cast members, McGuire is the only one to have repeated her role from the radio broadcast. Rounding out the extras are an original theatrical trailer for THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE and a few other Kino Lorber releases that include CRY OF THE CITY, I WAKE UP SCREAMING, DEADLINE – USA and DAISY KENYON.

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE on Blu-ray was more than worth the wait; the film itself is essential to have in a movie collection, which now looks the best that it ever has on home video and is an impressive package indeed. This is without a doubt a highly recommended release. (David Steigman)