Thanks to this film, Judge Joel Pearce now only takes the elevator.
A television show that's based on a story about a story that some writers imagine.
Not what it initially seems, Masters of Horror: Valerie on the Stairs begins like a ghost story, but quickly morphs into a surprisingly literary chiller. It's ultimately disappointing, but there's plenty here for horror fans to sink their claws into.
Facts of the Case
The Highberger House is a hotel of failure, a refuge for unpublished writers to concentrate on their work. Once they are published, they move on, and another aspiring young author takes that room. For Rob Hanisey (Tyron Leitso, House of the Dead), this means being able to eat on a regular basis, so he's glad for the opportunity to move in. On his first night, however, he starts hearing strange noises, and soon comes in contact with Valerie (Clare Grant, Black Snake Moan), a beautiful girl who lives in the walls of the building and is under the control of a frightening beast (Tony Todd, Final Destination). None of the other authors want anything to do with his stories, but as he digs deeper he suspects that the rest of the residents know much more than they let on…
If nothing else, Valerie on the Stairs has a fascinating story. In a way, though, it's a shame that it was written as a screenplay rather than a short story. It's a tale about the act of writing, and I think it would have worked much better on paper than on screen. As the story begins to unravel, Clive Barker tosses some clever literary concepts into the mix, but it falls apart when we see them unfold. At the best of times, scary things are more effective in our imaginations than anywhere else, and Valerie on the Stairs is a reminder of that. At one point, one of the authors is excited to see the beast for real, rather than in a cheesy rubber suit like he had in the past. That only serves to remind us that we are seeing a man in a rubber suit, and the effects aren't good enough to weather that kind of close criticism. The end is even more literary, and probably works far better in the treatments that Clive Barker wrote for the development of the show.
Which is not to say that Mick Garris doesn't come up with some flashy visuals and effective moments in this episode of Masters of Horror. In fact, Garris shows a keen eye and ear for horror, keeping the tension ramped up with some wicked jump moments and gruesome gore effects. The sequences with Valerie are quite erotic as well, and the film hints at some deeper and more deviant sexual things under the surface.
These jumps, scares, and peeks at flesh help to hide some of the show's weaknesses. Some of the performances are a bit weak, and a couple are even worse than that. For all the time Tony Todd must have spend getting into that makeup, he never gets to be more than a scary monster, and Jonathan Watton's character is just weak. We also never get the sense that any of these characters are actual writers. For a guy who's completed four novels, it sure takes Rob a hell of a long time to get down that first, terrible sentence. A lot of viewers won't be bothered by this, but the work to get those details right would have added a lot to the overall believability of the story.
The disc is generally well-produced, with one glaring exception. The image quality is excellent, presented in anamorphic 1.78:1, and without any noticeable transfer flaws. The sound, however, is baffling and distracting. The 5.1 track has all of the music mixed into the rear channels, the dialogue placed in the front pair, and sound effects coming through the center channel. It makes the dialogue difficult to listen to, and we can't really get lost in the experience, which is the whole point of horror in the first place. It's a good thing a vanilla stereo track was included as well. In terms of extras, we get two production featurettes, with lots of interviews with a very enthusiastic cast and crew. We also get a commentary with Mick Garris, who is clearly enthusiastic about what he does and likes to have control over his productions. If only I liked what he did here a little more.
Although it's been released on its own and has graphic content, Valerie on the Stairs has the scent of television all over it. It is short, the performances are not fantastic, and the special effects exist just below what we need to be fully engrossed. At the same time, it really does work on a visceral level, and the concept is intelligent enough to make it all worthwhile. Either way, horror fans will have a blast with the gore and scares here, and maybe that's enough.
Valerie on the Stairs is only guilty of trying to be more than it is.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Starz Home Entertainment
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