The Spiral Staircase (2000 TVM)

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Not so much a remake, more a sorry porridge!
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Canada, US / 88 minutes / color / Shavick, Saban International Dir: James Head Pr: Shawn Williamson Scr: Matt Dorff Story: Some Must Watch (1933) by Ethel Lina White and (uncredited) The Circular Staircase (1908) by Mary Roberts Rinehart, plus screenplay by Mel Dinelli, Helen Hayes and Robert Siodmak for The SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945) Cine: Gordon Verheul Cast: Nicollette Sheridan, Judd Nelson, Alex McArthur, Debbe Dunning, Christina Jastrzembska, Dolores Drake, David Storch, William McDonald, Holland Taylor, John Innes, Brenda Campbell, Candice McClure (i.e., Kandyse McClure), Dallas Thompson, Charles Payne, Kristina Matisic.

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Although this movie claims in its opening credits to be a remake of Robert Siodmak’s classic period noir The SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945), just about everything that distinguished the original movie from a run-of-the-mill murder mystery has been excised.

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Despite all the plot-changes, this remake is ready to offer the occasional visual quote from Siodmak’s original.

Perhaps most importantly, the killer’s motivation has been altered. In the original, the killer has a psychotic detestation of disabilities in women; this puts our heroine, who’s a traumatic mute, in severe danger of being his next victim. Here the motive’s just the humdrum one of financial gain—there’s an inheritance up for grabs—and, when this motive is suddenly produced in the final minutes, it makes no sense, because we’ve been told the killer has been murdering and assaulting pretty young women at random for some while. Furthermore, the muteness of the central character has no real impact on the plot—in fact (and this is actually quite cleverly done), we’re a good few minutes into the movie before we realize she’s mute at all.

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Helen (Nicollette Sheridan) hears a strange noise outside her bedroom.

Here’s the plot in short:

There’s a prologue in which a young girl (not properly identified in the credits) is walking home at night in Westport, Washington State, when she encounters an unusual gray kitten with one orange paw. Before she can do much else, she’s attacked, but beats off her attacker. The sole purpose of this prologue is to supply a red herring later (a character has a dark cat with a marmalade paw) and to introduce us to Sheriff Jimmy Bell (McDonald).

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Holland Taylor as the bedridden matriarch.

A year later, Dr. Porter (Innes) gets his ward Helen Capel (Sheridan) a job as nurse to Emma Warren (Taylor), the rich, supposedly truculent, bedridden owner of The Summit, a grand mansion that occupies its own island off Westport. Helen, traumatically mute since some tragedy befell her parents, arrives at The Summit and the two women hit it off immediately—there’s no sign of that truculence. Helen is also befriended by the house’s hard-drinking cook, Sarah (Drake)—the quality of whose cooking deteriorates incrementally during the day—and Emma’s at-home art-historian son Phillip (Nelson). The handyman Bobby Tyler (Storch) seems chummy too. The only member of the household not to welcome Helen is the glacial Rachel Parsons (Jastrzembska), who’s sort of the Rosa Klebb of housekeepers.

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Rachel Parsons (Christina Jastrzembska), the chilly housekeeper who seems to loathe Helen on sight.

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Cheery handyman Bobby (David Storch) is not immune to Helen’s charms.

Phillip’s elder and prodigal brother Steven (McArthur) soon arrives in hopes of extracting yet a further advance on the trust fund from his doting mom. With him he brings his latest floozy, Danielle (Dunning), whose outdoor hobby is sunbathing picturesquely in a skimpy bikini.

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Steven (Alex McArthur) knows he’s a focus of suspicion.

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Danielle (Debbe Dunning) works hard at being decorative.

One day Helen and Steven get a boatride into Westport from Bobby, and while they’re in town a young woman is strangled. A witness (insufficiently credited, although I think it’s McClure) puts Helen near the scene, so Sheriff Bell comes out to The Summit to interrogate Helen.

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Sheriff Jimmy Bell (William McDonald) interviews the witness in Westport (unidentified but possibly Kandyse McClure).

While he’s there, a hurricane blows up, the phone lines go down, the electricity goes phut and the generator goes kerblooie; and so our disparate cast are destined to spend a gloomy night in The Summit with the wind howling spookily and the candles flickering cheesily and, y’know, all that.

Of course, not everyone makes it through that dark and stormy night.

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Sarah (Dolores Drake) the cook, seen momentarily sober.

For some while I was much exercised by the lack of a spiral staircase—surely this was one gratuitous plot alteration too far? But it does turn up in the end. You see, The Summit has secret passages behind the walls that no one knows about except the baddies (“baddies” in the plural: the killer has an accomplice, although there seems no logical motive for the complicity). Within these cavernous secret passages there’s a rickety wooden spiral staircase, whose sole purpose appears to be to collapse at an appropriate moment.

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See? There is one!

Why the house should have such vast secret passages, or even any secret passages at all, is never explained. And neither is the fact that no one has ever spotted that the house is a whole lot bigger on the outside than it is on the inside.

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Helen (Nicollette Sheridan) investigates among the shadows.

There are more things left unexplained. It’s made clear that there’s no man in Helen’s life and never has been, yet she’s wearing an engagement ring. I mentioned above the red herring of the cat, which points to Steve as the serial killer. Another red herring, a bill clip found by the body of the murdered woman in Westport, likewise points to Steve. Both are simply forgotten about.

Yet, for all its general air of having been thrown together by a committee in a smoke-filled room—the smoke being of the kind they shouldn’t let the cops smell—the movie does have a few plus-points. There’s the occasional piece of pleasing cinematography, including some noirishly angled shots.

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Nicollette Sheridan is very cute as the ultravirginal Helen, while Holland Taylor, even though far too youthful for the part, delivers a good performance as the bedridden Emma—although I could have done with a bit more crustiness from the character. Dolores Drake is jolly as the swilling Sarah, and there’s a fine cameo turn from the actress playing the witness whom Helen almost bumped into in Westport. Probably the acting laurels go to Judd Nelson, as the mild-mannered, bookish Phillip, although eventually I began to worry about an overdose of limpid eyes.

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Scholarly Phillip (Judd Nelson) is eventually called upon to be a man of action.

What drew me to this movie was, obviously, my interest to compare it with Robert Siodmak’s original; while remakes, especially those done for television, are generally disappointing (although far from always—see the 1982 TVM Witness for the Prosecution, for example), they often have great curiosity value: it’s fun to see how different directors, separated by decades, tackle similar challenges. This one, alas, disappointed at that level as well, because it isn’t really a remake, just a rather mediocre modern-day thriller that shares various plot elements and a title with a great piece of gothic noir cinema.

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4 thoughts on “The Spiral Staircase (2000 TVM)

  1. As a fanatical adherent of the 1945 Robert Siodmak classic I simply HAD to see this film when it first ran on network TV. It is pretty Godawful, hence your own curt dismissal is on the mark. And yes of course it isn’t a re-make but a below-mediocre modern day thriller. A superlative piece here John!!!

    • The surprising thing is that, even if we ignore the supposed ancestry of the movie, it doesn’t even manage to be a good TVM thriller — despite a cast that’s by no means bottom-drawer.

  2. I remember thinking that the 1970s remake, despite a decent cast, was very poor too. The original is a bit fabulous though, so predictable that a remake would have a hard time measuring up …

    • I vaguely remember quite enjoying the 1975 version, but it was a very long time ago that I saw it — in fact, I think I saw it before I ever had a chance to watch the original.

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