Masters of Horror: Valerie on the Stairs (2006)
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There are two key elements to any good horror production: the idea and the execution of that idea. Valerie on the Stairs, Mick Garris’s offering from the second season of “Masters of Horror,” suffers from an acute failing of the latter. While the inspiration behind Valerie is fresh and intriguing, all of its effectiveness is sucked away by lackluster story implementation and direction.
Rob Hanisey (Tyron Leitso) is a down-on-his-luck aspiring author who can barely keep the bill collectors at bay. In a last-ditch effort to keep writing and stay off the streets, Hanisey moves into Highberger House, a home for unpublished writers to work in peace without the pressure of everyday life pressing in on them. However, it soon becomes apparent that everything is not peace and quite in his new home. His first night at Highberger House, Hanisey is visited by a crying girl (Clare Grant) on the stairs who is then snatched away by a demon in the wall (Tony Todd). As Hanisey digs deeper and begins to uncover the truth behind Valerie and the secret of Highberger House, the lines separating fact from fiction begin to blur.
The premise propelling Valerie on the Stairs, taken from a short story by Clive Barkeris one of its few strong points. While the mystery behind the house and the surprise twist ending are not necessarily unique, it’s original enough to be intriguing. Further, the episode’s predictability is dampened by the story’s initial presentation as a routine haunting. The episode continues this simple but elegant misdirection with the appearance of the demon, continuing the audience’s belief that the happenings at Highberger House have a basic, supernatural explanation.
Unfortunately, this is when my praise of this “Masters of Horror” installment stops. While the story may be fascinating, its presentation is not. Cramming what could have been a worthwhile feature film into 60 minutes, Valerie’s pacing is rushed and claustrophobic. With time at a premium, the set-up and backstory are sacrificed to ensure there is enough space for the actual plotline. However, while these aspects may be technically unnecessary, their absence breeds apathy. As an audience, we care little about our hero because we are given little reason as to why we should. Garris attempts to make up for this flaw by interspersing manic flashbacks and dream sequences, offering snippets of Hanisey’s supposedly turbulent past, but it is not enough. Rather than becoming enlightened, we are left bewildered, wondering what is going on and why it is important. These questions are never answered and the result is the audience’s inability to connect with the characters or engage in the story.
The most disappointing part of the episode, however, is the ending, which fails on two counts. First, it’s downright ridiculous. While it difficult to be precise without revealing the twist, I will say that the problem lies not with the theme, but with the stylistic presentation. While the rest of the episode relies on physical imagery – a girl on the stairs, a demon, even just a good ol’ fashioned bump in the night – Valerie’s ending takes a turn for the absurd, shifting suddenly from the corporeal to the fantastical. Something one might expect in a work by Ionesco, the imageryis grossly misplaced. Secondly, the film ends on a note of irrelevance. There is no remaining glimmer of hope for our hero, nor any possible, dreadful application to our own lives. With nothing left to hold onto nor any real sense of loss, we’re left only with the feeling of “So what?” And possibly a minor headache.
Valerie on the Stairs is arguably one of the worst installments of the “Masters of Horror” series not only because it fails at its task (to horrify, or at least interest, the audience), but also because it is a monument to wasted potential. The story flounders under the tutelage of Mick Garris, could have been something worthwhile. Instead, Valerie on the Stairs is a 60-minute car wreck that leaves me with an acute sadness that someone better didn’t get their hands on Barker’s original concept.