masters of horrorWhen Showtime first announced the Masters of Horror series, I was one very excited fellow. Some of the best-known names in the business would be directing all-out horror for the fans on a network that airs an occasional exceptional drama or two. And then, something terrible happened. The series aired. The drama was barely existent. The direction was tepid, at some points utterly bland and surprisingly contrived. The dialogue was horrendous and the effects, at best, were B-rated. I couldn’t have been more dissapointed if Stephen King himself had just announced he was now going to write romance novels with Daniele Steele. (Although, letting King have his violent way with the vast majority of Steele’s predictable plotlines and characters does resonate on the vengeful fun side. I disgress.)

Season two of Masters of Horror has done little in the way of redemption. The thing is: these directors have all done some excellent work. But that’s the rub right there: it’s been done. One would expect, given the chance, each director would explore new ground. Or at least repair and retread old ground with the knowledge each must have gained through the years. Instead, it seems that the concensus was to turn up blood, put the Goreometer at eleven, and not worry too much with story line or dialogue. Such is the case with the adaptation of Clive Barker’s work, Valerie on the Stairs.

Directed By: Mick Garris
Written By: Clive Barker (short story) Mick Garris (teleplay)
Production: Showtime
MPAA: Rated Mature

Tyron Leitso plays Down and Out Author checking into a hotel that caters to precisely his ilk. Built some years before by an also down and out author, this hotel marks the place where failed or failing writers may find sanctuary and quiet to hopefully pen the one novel that will catapult them from the roach-infested walls and obscurity. As he enters the hotel, if careful, one notes a sign placed by the entrance stairs reading, ‘Abandon all hope.’ I’m not too picky with my living quarters, but I’m afraid I’d reconsider the lease immediately upon seeing such a sign.

And that sign (and the author’s subsequent ignoring of it) begins to set off the movie’s root problem: we know where it’s going before it even gets to second gear. We’ve all seen the Scream franchise. We’ve all been around the horror block enough to know, well, dumbass, don’t go in there!

As Down and Out Author meets the hotel’s managing landlord, we get a brief, cliched glimpse into his previous life. The landlord asks a few personal questions, he answers. Landlord asks about love. Does Down and Out Author have a girlfriend? Brief pause, boyfriend? Quick flashback ala Hellraiser: Hellseeker and we see an argument that turns into a fist fight between Author and previous girlfriend. “The hell with love,” he says. He’s going to focus on the book. Right. “And how does that book appear to be coming along?” we wonder. One paragraph, thanks.

Down and Out Author begins—upon stepping into his new room—to hear something. A voice. A woman’s voice calls to him, and he starts to investigate. He steps out of his second-floor room and stumbles upon a woman on the stairs (to a third floor that he sees) who appears to be in torment. The predictable “he knows I’m here,” “he will be here soon,” “oh no! Here he comes!” dialogue commences, and, sadly, we know what’s coming sooner or later. It would seem there’s a mad beast that keeps her under lock and key.

He follows after the woman (we learn later her name is Valerie), and as she ascends and he follows, she dissapears and alas, so does that third floor. He runs headlong into the wall replacing the door he’d seen her walk through. Of course we know the underlying theme. Beauty tormented by Beast to be rescued by Heroic archetype. Not a problem. This storyline is classic enough that just about anyone is willing to give carte blanche to the new teller of the tale. Just about no one, however, is willing to let the story just convolute in on itself, adding cliche after cliche until finally one feels they must sit through the damned thing just to get some resolution to the work they’ve put in ignoring said cliches.

The predictability of this movie did not have to be the demise, yet there’s little forgiveness to be had for it because it’s second problem is the characters that dot the landscape. They feel like dots. Big, overblown, bloody dots that don’t do much of anything save for spout trite lines and worry the hell out of the lead as he tries to find some truth. We’re never given a chance to like, hate or love them so, of course, we’re mostly indifferent. And indifferent is far worse than hatred. Indifferent means we don’t give a nickel’s worth as to whether they live or die. When they die, there’s no impact. When they live, it almost seems annoying. Even Down and Out Author spends so much time fawning about looking for Valerie and trying to save her that he is rarely anything but his single dimension of fairy-tale heroism.

And yet, as we meet these characters, we glimpse hope. Christopher Lloyd is among the throng of failed writers, and surely that has to mean something! Mr. Lloyd would not just drop into a bad story for the hell of it! There’s Suki Kaiser, and she was really cool in Kingdom Hospital, right? Our hope is not long sustained, however, as we see these characters are one dimensional. Caricatures of parts that could have been worthwhile, parts that could have really driven the story toward something more than the sum of its parts. Lloyd plays the part of the failed writer who had that one moment, that shining, glorious moment whereby his creation had received reknown—even had been made into a movie. And his glory faded as quickly as it shined. Kaiser’s part is gruff, bitter and bitchy. Not a lot else to say about it, really.

We see these characters all attempt to deal with our Down and Out Author concerning his visions (visions that include, somehow, sex between he and Valerie) and what they mean. The usual. He doesn’t know what he’s getting in to. Leave it alone. Valerie doesn’t exist, the hell with you and your imagined fantasies of apparitional coitus! The beast doesn’t exist either, he’s just a badly drawn boy of horror penned by Mr. Lloyd’s character. Let it alone, son. Just go back to writing that failed book of yours.

Perhaps the most frustrating character of all is that of said beasty. Often the saving grace of mediocre horror is an interesting nemesis. Something that calls to our own inner demon with subtle seduction and makes us almost root for him. Up until his true evil is revealed, thus allowing us to have a sudden relapse in conscience and root for the brave hero. Not so here. Played by the impossible to mistake Tony Todd, said beasty (who torments the movie’s namesake, Valerie—or does he?) is little more than a lumpy, whiny mass of makeup and fat, horny in the figurative and literal sense, and somehow completely in love. He prattles on and on about it all being for her. It doesn’t wash, and neither does the character. It falls flat and resounds as little more than depraved perversion with hardly a reason. Why her? Why this Valerie? Sure, she’s purty and all that. But, if he’s got his pick of the litter, what, precisely, made him pick her? A sense of humor? Sensible dress habits? Maybe she, like him, has a fascination with Candy men. If we knew, it might make more sense. But we don’t know, so our beasty seems like a made up masher with no sense of style at all.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it becomes the most heinous insult of all. I sat, watching the end with my jaw hanging open, unable to believe the scene had made it through editing. I had a sense that the plot might be resolving in that direction, and, though again predictable, it could have been at least interesting. It was not, unfortunately, due to the horrible timing and as well the poor effects used.

From the moment this movie begins, it begins to fail. Clive Barker, like the aforementioned King, is one of the better horror writers and yet he, like King, doesn’t hit the mark even 90% of the time. When either writer does, it’s pure brilliance. When they don’t, it often results in mediocre that still holds sway above average, but remains, nonetheless, mediocre. This is one of Barker’s mediocre ones to begin with. It seems that the concensus for this one should have been, perhaps, “let’s just skip it.”

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Posted on May 30, 2008

Category : Reviews

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