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A killer seems to be loose in town, only killing the disabled, which is
bad news for Helen (Dorothy McGuire), since she is mute, due to a shock
she had when she saw her parents burn to death in a fire when she was a
child. Now Helen works as a private nurse for old, bed-ridden Mrs Warren
(Ethel Barrymore), an eccentric and grumpy old woman who lets noone take
care of her but Helen - but at the same time she beseeches Helen to leave
her house for good and go far away ... and he even offers her doctor,
Parry (Kent Smith), whom she knows is in love with Helen, money if he
takes her away. Parry even agrees to the idea, though not for the money,
and promises to pick her up later that day ...
In the meantime though, Mrs Warren's son Steve (Gordon Oliver) and her
stepson Albert (George Brent) get into a fight over Albert's private
secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), who has started an affair with Steve,
much to Albert's dismay, while at the same time, maid Mrs Oates (Elsa
Lanchester in a great performance) has drunken herself senseless with some
stolen brandy, her husband (Rhys Williams) has been sent away to the next
town to fetch some ether, and Mrs Warren's regular nurse Barker (Sara
Allgood) has just been fired and left the house ... and all of a sudden
the big house seems very empty to Helen ...
... especially when she finds Blanche's corpse in the cellar, and
Steve, who seems to be behaving strangely when he arrives on the scene,
seems to be having written murderer all over his face - but somehow Helen
manages to lock Steve in the cellar ... bad idea, because only now it
turns out that Albert is really the killer, and Steve would have been the
only one who could have saved Helen. Albert chases Helen through the
house, and Helen, being mute, can neither call the police or even scream
for help. It isn't until Albert seems to have Helen cornered at the spiral
staircase that Mrs Warren all of a sudden appears on top of the stairs and
shoots him ... then she falls down the stairs. With maybe her last breath,
she makes a confession. she always knew that one of her family had a
predilection for killing the disabled, but for some reason she always
thought it was her own son, Steve ...
With all the ordeal over, Helen
has found her voice again and is now able to call for help ...
Siodmak is often considered as one of the great (Hollywood)
directors, but it has to be noted that his output over the years was
remarkably uneven and especially the films he made after his return to
Germany are hardly masterpieces.
That said however, The Spiral
Staircase shows Siodmak at his best, a tense and suspenseful mix of
psychothriller, horror and film noir that would eventually become one of the
cornerstones of serial killer cinema and would - with its mix of pure
shock, suspense, bizarre details and psychological subtext - have a great
influence on the (sub)genre as such, especially on the Italian giallo and
the slasher film of the late 1970's/early 80's.