THE DEVIL’S STAIRWAY (1964)
Director: Lee Man-hee
Run time: 1h 49m
Unsung psychological thriller-horror provides an eerie view of greed, guilt and lust as a doctor takes drastic measures to silence his pregnant mistress
The Devil's Stairway and its director Lee Man-hee have spent much of their time in the shadow of The Housemaid (1960) and its creator Kim Ki-young. While Director Lee picks up on several of the themes of his fellow director, this film thrills in its own ways too.
This is all achieved through some slick shots, superb cinematography and a busy score which gives this thriller a layer of genuine horror.
A chief surgeon, Gwang-ho (Kim Jin-kyu – The Housemaid, Aimless Bullet), has ambitions to run the hospital and when the director’s daughter shows a romantic interest in him, he sees an opportunity to secure his professional dream as the hospital's heir apparent.
However, he has been involved in a long-term relationship with a nurse called Jin-suk (Moon Jung-suk), who soon after hearing the news tells Gwang-ho that she is pregnant. After a scuffle with Gwang-ho she falls from the hospital’s stairs and loses the baby.
On threatening to reveal their secret, Gwang-ho decides he must find a way to silence Jin-suk, but will these actions cost him even more dearly?
The Devil's Stairway evokes several thriller-horror elements from 1960s Korean cinema, most notability the stairs, used prominently in The Housemaid, as a means to attack rivals. The stairs have an especially vital role as being symbolic of Gwang-ho's climb up the capitalist rankings as greed drives his evil intentions.
This plays into the wider theme of the film around the infiltration of Western ideals into Korean society. The hospital and the director’s house operate as landscapes for such concerns, demonstrating the power of wealth and the lust for further materialism. A male doctor, a man in a white gown, is a symbol of further Western influence and the selfish ambition that comes with it.
The film’s other nurses serve this purpose too, living together in a single room on the ground floor while their superiors operate in greater comfort upstairs. This group of nurses also mock the director’s daughter for her Western style and gestures.
Perhaps the most horror-laden aspect of the film is its score, a creepy and dramatic soundtrack turned up to maximum. Certainly as Gwang-ho's actions become darker and his greed grows, this score provides an amplified reminder of the horror of his actions.
Alongside borrowing from The Housemaid, it also takes a huge slice of narrative from French film Les Diaboliques from 1955. What ensures that The Devil's Stairway manages to move into worthy ground in its own right are the links to Korean society at the time and the filmmaking skills of Director Lee.
A superb Blu-ray restoration of this film means that modern audiences can gain a clear view into Director Lee’s vision and the hallucinatory onslaught of this slow-burn high-impact psychological thriller-horror.