Written by: Mick Garris (teleplay), Clive Barker (original story)
Directed by: Mick Garris
Starring: Tyron Leitso, Clare Grant, and Christopher Lloyd
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Is the horror well so shallow that a weekly television series dedicated to the genre starts to feel repetitive around the twentieth episode or so? Between the last one (The Screwfly Solution) and this one, Iím starting to think so, as Valerie on the Stairs presents a similar setting to Dreams In the Witchhouse and retreads the meta-horrors of Cigarette Burns. This time around, itís Clive Barker doing the honors of exploring the horror of creation run amok for a struggling novelist, and it even features Tony Todd in a prominent role, so the whole thing feels a little familiar.
Rob Hanisey (Tyron Leitso) is the fledgling writer; heís written four novels and is knee deep on number five when he moves into Highberger House, a low-rent (literally) place that houses unpublished authors until they find success. Before he can even really get settled in, he starts to suspect the place might be haunted since he hears strange noises emanating from behind is walls; friendly fellow boarder Bruce (Jonathan Watton) insists that itís just the pipes, but Robís investigation leads him to discover the presence of a ghost named Valerie (Clare Grant) who hangs out on the stairs. Haunted by his own memories of a failed love, Rob attempts to save Valerie from a literal demon (Todd) that haunts her and the building.
Despite the familiarity of the material, Valerie on the Stairs presents a pretty cool idea that eventually spirals out of the setup. While it sounds like a typical ghost story, Rob soon discovers that something even more spooky is afoot that might affect his own sense of reality. The story takes a Wes Cravenís New Nightmare sort of turn when Valerie and the demon are revealed to be possible constructs of the houseís collective imagination, which throws Robís entire existence into question. Itís a really intriguing and horrifying existential concept with rich thematic possibilities. Coming from the hand of Barker, it feels like Valerie on the Stairs should explore the transgressive nature of horror art, its necessity, or its ability to become unchained from its authorship. What happens when our stories take on a life of their own and canít be controlled anymore?
Instead, like Cigarette Burns, it sets up all that intrigue only to get muddled and not say a whole lot since it just becomes a bit of a gore show anchored by a whole bunch of mumbo jumbo. Both the demon and Valerie begin to appear and wipe out the tenants in ridiculously gory fashion (one victim gets his spinal column ripped out through his face) as Rob scurries around trying to scrounge up some kind of explanation. Enter Christopher Lloyd as the (of course) eccentric old-timer thatís been hanging around the house for decades. Heís also hoarding information that ends up unlocking all of the secrets, mostly--in the end, Valerie on the Stairs just descends into a slog of half-hearted exposition, pointless ambiguity, and tedious anti-climax.
Series producer Mick Garris gets back behind the camera to help us trudge through the proceedings; his direction is mostly unremarkable, as he lets the typically competent crew carry the day--the gruesome effects are once again spectacular, while the film looks adequately spooky with well-dressed sets and designs. Todd is actually buried under a tone of makeup as the demon, and the design resembles something out of a 60s monster movie (which makes sense given what we learn about it). Thereís no mistaking Toddís voice, but itís difficult to say the genre favorite is well-used here; likewise, the rest of the cast is just sort of good enough. Leitso isnít the most compelling of leads, but the stunning Grant at least has a very compelling, alluring presence (and not just because sheís naked a whole lot--but it helps). Always welcome is Christopher Lloyd, even if heís just once again recycling the old bug-eyed nut shtick heís had since the 80s.
Ultimately, the familiarity of Valerie on the Stairs and Garrisís insistence on walking through the motions does it no favors. Itís a cerebral concept that sells itself out to grand guignol displays and half-baked obfuscation. As such, Masters of Horror strikes out again with its stab at meta-horror, and this one canít even claim the abstract, avant-garde weirdness like Cigarette Burns; Garris especially misses out on the gothic atmosphere that typically accompanies Barkerís work, so itís an airless, stagnant little spook show with more disemboweled guts than brains. Itís one of the weaker entries of the series, but Anchor Bay of course didnít treat it as such, as it loaded the disc down with the usual extras, including a commentary track with Garris and a handful of behind-the-scenes stuff. If Garrisís two entries are any indication, he probably should have relegated himself to staying in that capacity; while he showed a knack for securing and matching talent for these episodes, his own efforts were less than stellar. Rent it!
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