Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Spiral Staircase (1975)

          Tolerable only because of midlevel star power and solid production values, this inert UK thriller squanders a workable premise thanks to shoddy scripting and a directorial approach that prioritizes baroque visuals over compelling dramaturgy. Nearly everything in The Spiral Staircase feels contrived and false, so only a handful of violent scenes have anything resembling energy. Yet the truly confounding aspect of this picture is that it should have worked, seeing as how it’s a remake of the respected 1946 movie starring Dorothy McGuire. (Other versions of Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch include a pair of telefilms both titled The Spiral Staircase, one from 1964 starring Elizabeth Montgomery and one from 2000 starring Nicolette Sheridan.) The possibilities arising from a woman-in-peril story about a protagonist rendered mute by past trauma would seem to be nearly limitless, but this picture gets mired in dull domestic drama and presents suspense scenes with such clumsy obviousness that virtually no tension percolates. One is left with little to watch beyond leading lady Jacqueline Bisset’s beauty and costar Christopher Plummer’s unique brand of patrician haughtiness.
          Helen (Bisset), who lost the ability to speak after witnessing a tragedy, works as a caregiver for the elderly matriarch of a wealthy family that includes brothers Joe (Plummer) and Steven (John Phillip Law). Meanwhile, a local serial killer preys upon women with disabilities, triggering fear that Helen might be next on the hit list. Instead of focusing on that intrigue, screenwriters Chris Bryant and Allan Scott (wisely hiding behind a shared pseudonym) and director Peter Collinson lumber through aimless scenes about a drunk cook and a love triangle comprising the brothers plus comely secretary Blanche (Gayle Hunnicut). Most of this material is insipid, nonsensical, or both, and dopey sequences involving mysterious figures scuttling about in nighttime rain provide only brief reprieves from tedium. The Spiral Staircase finally gets down to business in the last 40 minutes or so, with attacks and chases and killings, though it’s pointless trying to track or understand the behavior of anyone onscreen. Still, Bisset is suitably alluring and Plummer is suitably pompous, so at least the movie delivers for fans of those actors. Similarly, Collinson and cinematographer Ken Hodges render lively compositions full of ominous foreground objects and shadowy background spaces, so The Spiral Staircase has the look of a passable shocker.

The Spiral Staircase: FUNKY