Written/directed by Mick Garris (based on a story by Clive Barker)
Original Airdate: December 29, 2006
Oh Mick… Mick, Mick, Mick. I always want to give him the benefit of the doubt, to believe in him. I’m not sure why. I think it has to do with all the interviews and reports that say what a nice guy he is and how great he is to work with. His heart is in the right place. He loves the genre, sticks with it, and considering how a lot of people feel about it, that makes me want to like him. But bless his heart, he’s just not that good at it.
This week’s episode of Masters of Horror is titled “Valerie on the Stairs”, which I just love. It’s based on a story, or a story idea at least, by the eminent Clive Barker. Clive wrote a 45-page treatment for the 60-minute episode, and Garris wrote the teleplay based on that. Knowing this makes me really, really want to read the treatment, to see what Clive came up with and what Garris added.
“Valerie on the Stairs” is the story of a struggling writer named Rob (Tyron Leitso) who is down on his luck, delinquent on all his bills, and desperately trying to get published. Luckily for him, a vacancy opens up in Highberger House – a rundown hostel for unpublished writers, where he can live for free until he is published. Where is this place, and where do I sign up?! Anyway, Rob moves in, and almost immediately strange things begin happening. Knocking, thumping in the walls, and the sounds of crying. Rob doesn’t seem too upset. After all, he’s a writer and we’re an unstable lot!
Soon he sees a beautiful young woman on the stairs outside his room, crying and begging him for his help. Valerie (Clare Grant) is the slave, or is she the willing partner?, of the Beast Othakai (Tony Todd). Determined to free her from her sexual bondage (and it wouldn’t be Clive Barker if there wasn’t at least a little freaky sex, would it?), Rob sets out to unravel the mystery of Valerie and her strange imprisonment in the walls of Highberger House. Did she die there? Is she a ghost? A succubus? His muse?
Bruce (Jonathan Watton), another resident of the house, is about Rob’s age and befriends the young man. The two share a joint and a little small talk about what Rob’s been seeing, the fate of the writer who had his room before him (a bloody suicide, which Rob had seen earlier in a vision), and the expenditure of creative juices. Bruce is the only one of the residents who does much of anything but hang around and bitch about shit and not write.
Or at least they appear to be not writing, but they are apparently writing away furiously. At least Bruce, Nealy (Christopher Lloyd), and Patricia are. And it’s what they’re writing that’s causing all these nasty, naked lady and murderous beastie problems. The thing about “Valerie on the Stairs” is that the premise is interesting. It’s not a new premise, but Barker has added a few original touches. Garris even manages to build some genuine tension in the first fifteen minutes of the episode. But I couldn’t help but think at the time that there was no way the mood could be sustained. And I was right.
What starts off as a fairly interesting story descends into a farce of sorts, for many reasons. For one, Tyron Leitso is just not a strong enough actor to carry the whole episode on his shoulders. His greatest claim to fame before Masters of Horror was a role in House of the Dead. I’ve managed to block that horrid bit of celluloid from my memory, so I don’t remember who he was. He may work just fine as a side character, but he proved rather ably last night that he isn’t leading man material. There’s nothing about his depiction of Rob that makes him interesting or likablem and his face hardly ever changes expression. And then there’s the scene of a confrontation where he pushes through the crowd and runs off like a kid who’s pissed off at his parents with the proverbial “I’m getting out of here!”
Clare Grant is very pretty. I will not argue that fact in the slightest. But I have no idea how good of an actress she is since her entire role consisted mostly of being pretty,and occasionally begging for help. It seems that Valerie loves the way the Beast makes her feel but wants to escape him. Perhaps because of this contradictory role Grant didn’t really sell either aspect. I didn’t buy that she wanted to desperately get away or that she was enjoying his ministrations. She makes a very beautiful, sexy victim, but little more than that.
The rest of the character roles serve pretty much as deux ex machina, a means to get the story where it needs to be, and little else. Christopher Lloyd is his usual self, wide-eyed and wild-haired. Except for the difference between the backdrop and the actual words he was saying, he could have been acting out scenes from Back to the Future. He did get some of the best lines in the episode though, laughingly responding to Rob’s accusations that the inhabitants of Highberger House are all out of their minds with “We’re writers!”
There are certain aspects of the story that just never come together or are left hanging. Rob’s flash of Terry’s suicide is the only one of its kind, and there’s no further mention of it. It’s kind of insinuated that the Beast had something to do with Terry’s death but only in an offhand way and not to any real purpose. And Rob comes out of his vision of Terry’s bloody death and finds a picture of Valerie in his room, which he mentions to Bruce and then it kind of never gets followed up on – and given the gist of the story, it felt like it sort of needed to be. And then there are the occasional flashbacks Rob has of an ex-girlfriend and their time together, and she pops up later, but nothing is really done with that either. I mean, it’s sort of clear what they’re doing there, but like the other aspects it’s kind of thrown out there and left.
Once the big REVEAL happens and we learn who Valerie is, the climax comes fast and furious … or fast anyway. People get offed left and right, and there’s a good bit of gore, but it kind of feels like it’s tacked on to give the audience a charge. But it didn’t make me giddy the way gore usually does. It was just there. And there’s the final showdown between the Beast and our “hero” Rob that lasts all of a minute, and then Rob defeats him in the lamest way possible before rushing to a denouement on the roof that is the worst moment of a bad episode … the last line on the screen is “And so it came to pass that Rob Hanisey never became a published author.” I think it would have been best for everyone if he’d never become a television character either.
When it all comes down to it, I think “Valerie on the Stairs” would have worked much better as a short story or a novella with Clive’s particular brand of darkness. Mick manages to make this episode look good, which I feel I should mention because normally I don’t like the look of his films. They always feel a little off, like how something might look in a fever dream. But this one has a very cool look to it that I enjoyed. But there’s something about the writing aspect of horror that Mick just … misses. I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but it’s just not quite there. And in this case, it’s REALLY not there. To put it succinctly (and please pardon the cheese), watching “Valerie on the Stairs” is as about as enjoyable as falling down a flight.
1 out of 5
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