The Warner Archive has released the 1975 remake of The Spiral Staircase as a burn-to-order title. The original version from 1946 has always been well-regarded and holds up well even today. Not so with this version, which was made for American television and released theatrically in Europe. The movie boasts an impressive cast and was directed by Peter Collinson, who died only a few years later at the young age of 44. Collinson's main claim to fame is the original version of The Italian Job which, over the decades, has developed a very enthusiastic cult following in England. The wit and liveliness he brought to that production is nowhere to be found in this pedantic affair. Jacqueline Bisset plays Helen Mallory, a beautiful young woman who has been rendered mute by the trauma of having witnessed her husband and young daughter killed in a house fire. She's trying to get her act together and has a relationship with a doctor (poorly played by John Ronane) who is trying to coax her into speaking again. Conveniently (for the scriptwriters), Helen just happens to visit a small town where handicapped young women are being slain by a serial killer. Helen is there ostensibly to visit her uncle, Dr. Joe Sherman (Christopher Plummer) but, of course, we know she'll end up in his old house being terrorized by the killer. The mansion house has all the stock characters from an Agatha Christie tale: a feisty, invalid old woman (Mildred Dunnock), Sherman's rude, sexually-driven brother Steve (John Philip Law), a comely southern belle (Gayle Hunnicutt) who vies for the attention of both brothers, a drunken female chef (Shelia Brennan), her handyman husband (Ronald Radd) and a tough-as-nails nurse (Elaine Stritch). Every conceivable cliche is tossed into the mix: a torrential thunder and lightning storm, mysterious knocks on doors, power failures, etc. You have expect Vincent Price to pop out of a closet and inform everyone they are his guests at a lethal dinner party. Before long, it becomes clear that the murderer is inside the house and one-by-one the supporting characters succumb until Helen is left to fend for herself against her would-be murderer.
Collinson's clunky direction milks the film of any suspense. He relies on the sound of crashing thunder and the zoom lens to evoke thrills and the cast members limp lamely through the proceedings as though they recognize this project is far below their talents. Naturally, our heroine does every conceivable thing imaginable to ensure she puts herself at maximum risk. The screenplay never really develops the characters beyond cliches and, therefore, there is little emotional wallop when they meet their respective fates. Collinson also fails to capitalize on the titular spiral staircase or interweave it in any meaningful way into the proceedings. The movie was clearly shot entirely on location in England, but for some bizarre reason, great pains were taken to pretend the proceedings are going on in America, a ploy that fails on every level.
On the positive side, this Spiral Staircase is never dull and does move at a brisk pace. There is also the pleasure of seeing some great talents on screen together, even if they are there in search of a quick pay check.