“She was just in time to see the last tree split into two, as a man slipped from behind its trunk, and disappeared into the shadow.” – Ethel Lina White (Some Must Watch)
I had the glorious experience of sitting inside a 250-seat movie theater watching A Quiet Place all by myself on a Sunday morning a last year. The technique of stripping sound away from that film, utilizing silence as a narrative vessel, is completely obvious when you are the only person sitting in front of a giant movie screen with nothing but the glow of the film to illuminate the empty seats surrounding you. As the movie progressed I could feel myself moving anxiously in my seat, inching towards the front of the chair in anticipation of the next scare. The darkness and seclusion of the theater playing tricks on my senses as I turned around in my chair thinking I heard someone move behind me, as flashes of light would cast dancing shadows that caught the attention of my peripheral vision as if someone was moving just outside of my sight. It was an experience that I have tried to recreate unsuccessfully ever since.
During this brief time in an empty movie theater it was interesting to experience all the horror happening on the screen but also dissecting all the horror that was being developed in my brain inside that space. But why was I so unnerved while sitting there? There wasn’t a masked killer sitting behind me, there wasn’t a ghost stalking the theater aisles, it wasn’t even the loud music notes that were purposefully placed to induce fear. It was the quiet nature of the entire experience, the quiet sound design from the film, the quiet shadows where the light gets lost in the dark, and the quiet voices of characters whispering in fear. It’s the quiet quality of sound, light, and framing that often times defines a horror film, that separates cheap scares from the lingering fear that you remember when you are all alone, in the quiet.
The 1946 horror-thriller The Spiral Staircase, directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Dorothy Maguire, George Brent, and Ethel Barrymore, has a simple narrative premise about a serial murderer who targets a mute woman named Helen (Dorothy Maguire). The film opens with Helen sitting in the middle of a movie screening, during a double feature, watching a silent film that is accompanied by piano composition inside the theater. Helen looks eager, somewhat anxious, as she is isolated with an illumination in the center of the theater, shrouded in darkness around the edges of her figure. Moments later, a woman preparing for bed is being spied upon by someone hiding in her closet, the close-up photography of the assailant’s piercing eye fills the screen and the woman, whose hands are the only physical elements found in frame, tense and writhe with what can be assessed as pain. Helen, still sitting in the movie theater, is unaware of the murder as the film concludes and the words “The End” scroll onto the screen.
The Spiral Staircase composes a simple “whodunit” thriller that plays more with atmosphere and tension than gruesome depictions of violence or supernatural forces. Even the portrayal of the serial killer, who targets women with disabilities, is only seen through a close-up shot of a single eyeball peering out at the viewer. But the technique associated with the composition of this film is fascinating in how it unnerves and how it evokes fear for the viewer. The moments when the score rises and the tension is purposefully squeezed out of the film by the big acting cues or the crashing of objects after a struggle are effective but not frightening.
It’s the quiet moments in the film that leave the lasting impression, the technique of how the filmmaker uses space within the frame to create isolation that is often times quiet and creates an unsettling tone of tension. Helen is often framed center screen, sometimes only illuminated by a candle flame, as the shadows in the gothic-like manner slowly collapse on her.
Director of photography Nicholas Musuraca, who in 1948 would be nominated for an Oscar for cinematography for I Remember Mama, manipulates the light in such amusing ways throughout the film. Playing with the contrast of bright whites and deep blacks to illuminate specific points of interest in the film, to unravel the mystery through light, to display the fear of the silence that exists in the darkness.
Dorothy McGuire, an Academy Award winning actress for Gentleman’s Agreement, composes Helen’s silence with consistent uneasiness. Her facial expressions and deliberate mannerisms hint at some kind of past trauma, even before it’s explored. Helen’s silence throughout the film creates a desperation for her characters safety. When the eventual final confrontation arrives, an early “final girl” narrative design, Helen’s silence is utilized to full effect. The cries for help, the scream of fear, the yell of aggression is absent for the character. We, the viewer, suffer with the quiet she cannot escape from.
In many ways, you can see the influence this film had on the composition of horror films throughout the 1950’s with films like House on Haunted Hill or House of Wax, in the 1960’s with films like Rosemary’s Baby, Peeping Tom, and most notably Psycho as well as other works from Alfred Hitchcock. The influence continues into the 1970’s with the gothic works of Hammer Horror, into the 1980’s with the transition from the stalker to the slasher, and continues to influence genre cinema today.