James Head | 88 mins | TV | 1.33:1 | USA / English
A couple of years ago I discovered the ’40s Gothic noir thriller The Spiral Staircase, an exceedingly enjoyable film that I would heartily encourage you to see. It’s been remade twice: first a British effort in the ’70s, then this turn-of-the-millennium US TV movie. I find remakes immensely interesting — they’re almost always reviled, but that doesn’t mean they’re all bad; and even when they are, they can be interesting as an indication of what one era thought was a good idea for updating (or not) something originally made in a different time. The ’00s Spiral Staircase is definitely one of the bad ones, but if you want a snapshot of ’90s (not a typo) US TV movies, it’s bang on.
I believe it was made for a Women’s Network in the States, and it feels like an adaptation of one of those doorstop-sized airport romance paperbacks that I imagine are their stock in trade. (In fairness to doorstop-sized airport romances and the novel from which all versions of The Spiral Staircase stem, I’ve never read either.) Despite the implications of an “X months ago” prologue in which someone is followed by a spooky pair of eyes (presumably a whole person, but we only see the eyes), the first half is more cheap, tacky, romance-of-the-week TV movie than serial killer thriller.
The second half tries harder, seeing a bunch of potential victims locked in an island mansion, cut off by a terrible storm, and then finds reasons to have them wander back and forth around the place until they start being bumped off for no particular reason. This half isn’t necessarily good, but it has more atmosphere and more excitement, if not any more originality, even while contriving ways to divide its characters.
There are about three suspects in the entire tale. One is so clearly being set up from the off that you know it can’t be him; one barely even registers as a suspect; and it’s not the third one. But the film doesn’t pull off a twist because the attempt (by dragging that middle character back into it) comes so out of the blue as to make no sense. They don’t even bother to try to explain it properly! It’s about the only time the film holds back on painful over-exposition, and it’s about the only time it needs it. Either way, it’s not the same as the original film’s, and it’s not as good.
Every character is a cliché: the sweet new girl, the stern housekeeper, the drunk cook, the no-nonsense bed-ridden matriarch, the intelligent brother who stayed behind to look after mother, the playboy brother who only comes home when he needs a loan, his latest gold-digging floozy… The performances don’t help. As the mute heroine, Nicollette Sheridan only has her facial expressions to work with, and they don’t seem to change; she’s also at least a decade too old for the part. As her love interest, former Brat Packer Judd Nelson is awfully wooden. The rest of the cast are various degrees of adequate.
Head’s direction is flat and cheap, which I suppose is exactly what you’d expect from a late-’90s cable TV movie. The sequence where a character stumbles across the titular staircase is quite atmospheric, given added creepiness by it featuring about the only character whose fate doesn’t seem inevitable, but that’s all. Even given a storm in a house with no power, the only atmosphere generated is that which such a situation offers by default.
The original story is clearly suited to a Gothic historical setting (the ’40s film didn’t keep the novel’s time period, but it chose one similar enough), but that doesn’t mean a modern-set rendition isn’t without potential. Or maybe it is — it’s hard to be certain from a movie that certainly doesn’t realise what potential there may be. Yet for all its countless weaknesses, I can’t quite bring myself to entirely despise it. Can I really give this wholly derivative remake 2 stars? It may be some kind of Stockholm Syndrome — after 90 minutes with it, I can’t help but find some point in it all; some thing to like.
But no, it’s woeful; and unless you have a fondness for romance-focused late-’90s US cable TV movies, or for seeing just how remakes have changed things (like me… the second, that is, not the first), then I recommend you stay clear.
The 1945 version of The Spiral Staircase is on BBC Two tomorrow, Friday 31st August, at 12:50pm. You can read my review here.
The Spiral Staircase featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2012, which can be read in full here.