1980 was a huge year for slasher movies. Two years following the huge success of HALLOWEEN, studios and filmmakers were eager to produce the next inexpensive, runaway horror hit. PROM NIGHT, TERROR TRAIN, MANIAC, HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE, FRIDAY THE 13TH, and many more were released in an attempt to capitalize on the growing slasher subgenre.
May people trace the roots of the 80’s slasher boom back to 1960; a year which saw the release of films like PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM. While those two films obviously played a huge role in inspiring many movies of the slasher subgenre, HALLOWEEN especially, some believe the DNA of the slasher film can be traced all the way back to a group of films released in the 1940’s. In his essay, “Strange Pleasure: 1940’s Proto-Slasher Cinema”, Peter Marra theorizes that movies such as THE LODGER, THE LEOPARD MAN, and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, showcase many of the tropes and characteristics that would dominate the slasher film decades later.
Released in 1945, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE tells the story of a young mute woman terrorized by a killer who is looking to rid the world of people, particularly women, with disabilities. Directed by Robert Siodmak, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is commonly referred to as a film noir, or psychological thriller, but it also shares quite a bit in common with many of the slasher films released in the 1980’s and beyond.
TROPES AND TECHNIQUES
From the jump, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE displays some of the techniques that slasher fans should be familiar with. For example, there are quite a few POV and subjective camera shots from the killer’s perspective in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. These shots establish that the killer is in the house with the inhabitants, and also place the audience in the killer’s shoes, as was later done in films like HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH. There is even a line in the beginning of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE where a character says that the killer is “Somebody in this town. Somebody we all know. Might be me. Might be you”. DUN DUN DUNNN. This line sets up the whodunit aspect of the film, an aspect similar to many slasher movies of the 1980’s like HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and SLEEPAWAY CAMP, to name a couple.
The POV shots also lead to the classic slasher movie moment where the person being killed recognizes the killer while in frame of the POV shot, and then killed because they are too comfortable, and let their guard down around the killer. Moments before Blanch is murdered in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, she says to the killer while he is off-screen, “Hey, buddy. How you been? How are the kids?” or something like that, and then he kills her. This moment protects the identity of the killer, and also establishes that the killer is someone the victims feel comfortable around. Too comfortable. And it’s a moment that will occur throughout countless slasher films.
There are also plenty of stalk-and-slash scenes, and fake-out scares in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. Windows clang, thunder cracks, and since this is a whodunit, there are plenty of red herrings. Probably too many, honestly. Characters kind of fade in and out of the plot without warning, and quite a few of them aren’t integral to the plot at all. It does, however, give the film plenty of opportunities to throw some head fakes at the audience when it comes to the mystery of the killer inside the house.
The opening of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is reminiscent of several later slashers as well. The first kill takes place while people are watching a movie in a theater, and after the deed is done the film goes out of its way to show “The End” on the cinema screen. It’s a neat little self-reflexive moment, and the opening scene set in a movie theater is something that would occur later in slashers like HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE and SCREAM 2.
As far as character types go, the character of Mrs. Warren is pretty much the crazy doomsayer character of THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. Mrs. Warren is a bedridden inhabitant of the house, and she spends the vast majority of her scenes in the film saying stuff like, “Hey, Helen, GTFO. You’re gonna die.” Mrs. Warren is like if Crazy Ralph from FRIDAY THE 13TH kept popping up every ten minutes in that movie, and honestly, for me, she’s kind of a problem with the film. She spends most of the movie telling Helen she needs to get out of the house, but the she never really tells her why. It’s super annoying. It’s like the last 3 seasons of LOST.
Also, like a lot of slashers, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE drags. Most of the film’s 2nd act is nothing but people running around the house looking for brandy, and scenes of Mrs. Warren telling Helen she’s got to get out of there. In the grand tradition of 80’s slashers like TERROR TRAIN and PROM NIGHT, you just want the movie to get on with it. THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE doesn’t even have the good sense to throw in a David Copperfield magic show.
There is also a dog in the movie. And he is adorable. He is a big, fat bulldog and he is the best character in the entire film. Dogs have always been an important part of slasher movies. The dog that Michael Myers eats in HALLOWEEN. The heroic, Gordon, from FRIDAY THE 13TH PART IV. Throughout horror history, dogs have been the first to sense impending doom. I don’t really know if this dog does though. He mostly just kind of sits around. I’ve had bulldogs as pets, and that’s pretty much what they do though, so THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is accurate in that area.
The killer doesn’t really have a look. There is a moment early in the film where the film shows someone outside the house standing in the pouring rain wearing a slick black raincoat and hat combination. It’s a really cool shot. And the black and white nature of the film really does wonders for the foreboding presence of the killer, except it’s not the killer in the shot. Or at least I don’t think it was. It’s another red herring. I think it’s the driver at the end of the movie who is just standing out there. During the film’s climax, the killer is revealed to be Albert, and he’s just wearing a suit and black gloves. It’s fine. I just liked it better when I thought he was wearing a rain slicker.
Like a lot of slashers, Albert has a specific reason for killing, and it’s a doozy. Albert is stalking and killing people, women specifically, who have physical or mental issues. The character of Mrs. Oates is the first to notice this stating, “First the girl with the scar on her face, then that simple-minded one and, now, the cripple in the hotel”. All of this this leads to Helen, the film’s final girl; a mute woman that the killer is looking to wipe out, as Albert claims that “There’s no room in the whole world for imperfection”. This is pretty hardcore. I mean, I know he’s a serial killer and all, but man, what a fucking asshole.
THE FINAL GIRL
Helen is a quintessential final girl; virginal and pure. Helen is also the type of final girl who has a tragic backstory, as she has gone mute after witnessing the death of her parents inside of a burning building when she was a young girl and hasn’t spoken since. I think she makes a pretty good final girl, as she has two things to overcome: her affliction and the psychopath that is trying to kill her. The whole movie builds to the moment when she finally speaks into the phone after overcoming condition and the villain. Like Laurie Strode, or Sally from TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, Helen is put through the ringer throughout the course of the film, and she comes out of it a stronger person. There is also a pretty feminist slant to THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, as Helen and Mrs. Warren team up to take down Albert, the man trying to keep them quiet and in their respective places. All of these things add up to Helen being a strong final girl.
What’s unique about Helen is that because she is mute, she is unable to perform the typical final girl scream. She does get some other final girl moments throughout the film though. There is a scene where she walks through the house to discover the dead body of Blanche (the home’s secretary), an early example of the quintessential “walkthrough the carnage” slasher movie scene. The final chase through the house between her and the killer, is also classic slasher movie stuff. It’s also not really that exciting. They just run up and down the spiral staircase a bunch. I guess that is the movie’s title, so you need to give the audience what they want.
THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE is a bloodless film, but come on, it’s 1945. The killer does get to do work a couple of times though. There is the opening scene in the movie theater, as well as the scene with Blanche in the basement, where Albert kills her using a POV shot that causes her to obscure herself in the shadows and fall slowly down the basement wall.
Albert seems like a bit of a go-getter though when he’s not on screen. I think someone says he’s killed like 9 people over the last few years. You could probably re-make this movie into a more straightforward, and offensive, slasher today. In fact, the movie was remade in 1975, and the year 2000.
While commonly referred to as a film noir, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE serves as decent example of an early slasher movie as well. The movie features many of the tropes, character types, and techniques that would play a huge role in many of the slasher films that would come in the years to follow. Horror fans love to discover new films, and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE proves that just because something isn’t a straight up horror movie, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t something for a horror fan to enjoy.
Hey! If you like slasher movies, be sure to check our episode on the “Class of 1980”, where we cover FRIDAY THE 13TH, HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE, and TERROR TRAIN.