I feel fairly comfortable saying that 1946’s The Spiral Staircase is a feminist horror film. Which is ironic, given the utterly soulless female characters director Robert Siodmak brought to the silver screen in Son of Dracula and films- noir like Criss Cross, and The Killers (what rom-com?) Initially, The Spiral Staircase was to be an anti-Nazi horror flick by Fritz Lang, who dropped out of production at the last minute, being replaced by the less politically-minded Siodmak. The resulting film was not only one of the scariest horror movies ever made, but it emphasized its female characters’ power at nearly every turn.
The initial plotline may fool a few. In the first scene, a handicapped woman is strangled by a man hiding in her closet while a group of people in the hotel where she works watch an early moving picture. The movie’s heroine, Helen (played by Dorothy McGuire) has been mute ever since a childhood trauma, and because of her affliction, it is believed that she will be the serial killer’s next target, for he only preys on women with afflictions. News of the murder reaches the movie-goers very quickly, and as Helen begins the long walk back to the house where she is employed as a servant, the audience gets its first glimpse of the power underneath her silent exterior. Realizing that she is being followed through the woods, Helen selects a heavy fallen stick to defend herself, and is able to reach the house unhurt. Unfortunately for her, the killer is able to get inside as well. From there, the net closes in on both Helen and the viewer’s nerves.
The house is a large, Victorian nightmare inhabited by the Professor, his stepmother Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore), his half-brother Steven, his secretary Blanche, a servant couple named Oates, and Nurse Barker. Because the sly, tough Mrs. Warren who boldly (and correctly) described herself as “good as any man” and very handy with a rifle, is unwell, the local doctor, Perry, who is also worried about Helen, comes by and prescribes ether for the old woman. Frustrated with the family, Nurse Barker quits, so Mr. Oates is sent to the next town, 20 miles away for the ether. Soon after Perry is called away on an emergency, and the alcoholic comic-relief Mrs. Oates gets drunk and passes out. Steven gets too fresh with Blanche, who fed up with the attentions of both brothers, quits, but is strangled before she can leave. The net tightens.
Up front, I admit that the movie’s almost exclusively female body-count (on and off-screen) will upset most feminists, myself included. However, this is more than John Carpenter punishing sexual teenagers for their sins. The murder that the movie opens with sets the tone, lets the audience know what kind of human monster they are dealing with, and establishes concern for the heroine, who can still aptly take care of herself. Both Nurse Barker and Mrs. Warren are described as being as good as men, and indeed Nurse Barker shows a surprising modernity by refusing to put up with the unpleasant Warrens and demanding her salary be paid before the leaves. And though not as physically strong as she must have been once, Ethel Barrymore’s indomitable Mrs. Warren demonstrates a shrewd intelligence and keen eye with a gun, something quite unheard-of in the Production Code era and even today where most female characters in horror movies stand still and scream until they are killed. Blanche is tough enough to fend off one amorous brother, and though she is killed shortly thereafter, her death is very effective and packs a punch to the audience, who are sorry to see her go and worry what will happen to Helen. Even Mrs. Oates gets a moment to argue with her husband about his making decisions for her. Helen, with her affliction, could easily be over-sentimentalized, but McGuire fleshes her out into a very capable, sweet, powerful character who the audience can genuinely like and not simply follow because she is the protagonist.
Like all movies, The Spiral Staircase has its flaws, but perhaps its biggest is the debt that the one of the most misogynistic subgenres of horror– the slasher flick– owe to its style and basic plotline. Halloween follows it very closely, even to the ending, although Siodmak was smart enough not to ruin his by taping on a supernatural postscript. The ending of The Spiral Staircase is the only ending, and a very powerful one at that, thanks largely to it cast of strong female characters.