Masters of Horror: Valerie on the Stairs (DVD)
Directed by Mick Garris
Story by Clive Barker
Distributed by Anchor Bay Home Entertainment
The Highberger House has seen many writers of all ages come and go through its dark halls over the years. Some writers prosper while others merely wither away as their literary works are rejected time and time again. On occasion the pent-up rage can lead to suicide, but once in a while it can lead to something totally unthinkable.
The old Highberger building is a refuge for unpublished writers. Those trying to break into the book business are welcome to stay rent-free until they are picked up by a publisher, which is great news for the young Rob Hanisey. He has yet to see his work in print form and a nasty breakup with his girlfriend hasn't helped matters. Jumping at the chance to escape rising debt and enjoy a new surrounding, Rob has taken up residence in the stuffy writers' home. Not long after he sets his laptop down things start to go bump, groan and splatter.
Rob (Leitso) starts to see visions of a beautiful, scared young woman named Valerie (Grant) on the stairs outside his room. She is frightened of something that lives in the house. It is after her and she needs help, but before Hanisey can reach out to touch her, she vanishes into a wall. The other residents of Highberger House pass Rob's stories off as fiction or insanity. But soon Valerie and the demon (Tony Todd) she fears start to visit other members of the building, leaving behind mutilated heaps of flesh in their wake.
As usual we won't be going into spoiler details as this Masters of Horror story has a twist ending ... and a confusing one at that. That is not to say this is a bad story; it is just not a complete one.
The original idea that Valerie is based on was penned by Clive Barker, but his style doesn't seem as present here as it should be. This could be because much of it had to be changed according to director Mick Garris. That is a pity. The seduction and violence we see in the final product make the mind wonder what could have been if the screenplay had been more faithful to the original idea. When we are given the twist, it feels like a few questions have not been answered; and some may view it as coming far out of left field. Was there something in Clive's original treatment that could have made it better? Sadly there's no point in crying over spilled milk at this point so let us move on to the episode we actually have been given.
Valerie on the Stairs builds the Highberger House on a very solid foundation of strong actors. Tyron Leitso isn't given much to do outside of his heroic do-gooder role, but under that paper-thin character is an actor that should be put to better use. Hanisey is not fleshed out enough where it should be to allow Tyron to fill it out. His back story, including the turbulent times with his ex-girlfriend, is simply hinted at rather than explored. By the time we find out his true destiny, there is a whole new closet of questions opened up as to why some things like his debt and ex were even brought up briefly in the first place.
Clare Grant and Tony Todd work well together as Beauty and the Beast. You can never steer wrong with slapping some prosthetics on Tony and allowing him to rip open a few humans. As usual he delivers his lines like he takes the material seriously. Never expect less from him. Clare Grant does the same, but she gets to switch between the helpless minx and the vindictive female tortured by her creators. The evil side of her is given little screen time, but on those few times when she stops caring and that small twinkle appears in her eye, it is hard not to wonder what other great things we'll see from her in future roles. Almost forgot to mention this, but she has a really killer body. Like I wouldn't mention that ... come on!
Filling out the last memorable role is the wired Christopher Lloyd. Describing him in this MoH episode as simply "Lloyd being Lloyd" may sound cheap, but it is the truth, not in a negative sense mind you. Christopher Lloyd isn't exploding onto the scenes like his Doc Brown character, but rather he stays laid back through much of Valerie until the end when Rob is starting to put the facts together and a fantastic discovery is made. From that point on Lloyd is wild and very irritable like some old quack. It seems like a decade since he's been on the screen so to see him back and displaying energy and humor in such a strange story brings a smile to my face.
The rest of the cast are sort of floaty and leave no real lasting impressions. There are a few lines of dialogue spoken by sexually frustrated female writer Patricia Dunbar, but her importance and fate never amount to much due to her squandered screen time. Another writer contributing to the weirdness around the ghostly beauty haunting Rob is Bruce Sweetland. His character is your typical laid back stoner who is just as unused as Patricia. There had to have been more to them in Clive's original story. They just seem too important to the story's central character to have been always this plain. Again, that spilled milk.
It is almost always a sure thing that a Masters of Horror DVD will be packed with plenty of replay value. Valerie keeps true to that statement with two very informative featurettes on filmmaking and editing. Spine Tingler: The Making of Valerie on the Stairs is exactly what you would expect from a "making-of" video. Everything from makeup to CGI is covered at a detailed level. For a feature that only spans 15 minutes, it provides a lot of bang for the buck with explanations of even the smallest FX like rubber dummies and particle effects. This should easily satisfy those who always ask how something is done, but one complaint many may have is that Clive doesn't get as much screen time as he needs considering this was his story. Oddly it all feels made up for when Tony Todd tells us, "Fuck around with shit too much and your imagination will come to life.". The man is magical.
The last video feature is Jump Scare: Editing Valerie. Like the name states, this is all about how to make the most out of your scares by tweaking things during editing. Valerie is home to many jump scares, many of which feel well built up unlike the musical stingers that have been over-used in many PG-13 films. To make the scare more about the visuals than the sound effect, at the right moment a few frames are cut out right after the attacked springs onto the scene. While this is a nice look into how a few small things can change an audience's reaction, very little else is looked at in this editing featurette.
Rounding out the meatier features is the commentary. Mick Garris is not a man to keep his mouth shut, and that is not a complaint. Garris is here to fill the viewer in on everything from tiny details about what is on set and what is on location up to the bigger things like going in post production to cover up Valerie's crotch with a shadow. I would almost dock some points from Mick for cutting out that area of a fully naked woman, but the ever insightful director informs the audience that she was wearing a modesty patch anyway so the goods wouldn't have been visible regardless. Oh, Mick, you tease!
The special feature filler on the disc consists of Garris's bio, a photo gallery and a PDF version of the episode's screenplay. While adding these few things to the disc is nice, they will mostly be passed over by many, the script even more so because you would have to insert it into your PC just to read it. Maybe it is time for DVD players to come installed with at least some lite version of an Adobe reader so those PC-less folks can enjoy all aspects of this collection.
To put it lightly, Valerie on the Stairs is an OK addition to Season Two that never goes over the top until the end. Sexy, stylish and seductive would be the best words for it as it never comes off as a chilling tale of what could happen if so many failed dreams were to make themselves materialize and run amok in an old spooky building. The episode captures the seductiveness of the tale well with the beautiful Valerie and detailed approach used for lighting each mood; however, some potential is ultimately lost in the absence of Clive Barker's full script. Maybe this will open up an avenue to make something similar into a feature length film.
3 out of 5
4 out of 5
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