Being a writer himself, one can see why writer/director Mick Garris was attracted to Clive Barker's more cerebral story about the bad vibes from failed writers possessing a hotel until the energy can no longer be contained within the building's walls, but films about writers writing or in the midst of writer's block tend to offer not much action, and although a more cerebral approach can yield hallucinations, demons, ghosts, and things that go bump in the night before the world within the hotel implodes, “Valerie on the Stairs” just doesn't work.
Starting off as a ghost story about an intrusive presence hammering around the walls of Rob Hanisey's lonely room, things move into absurdity when a naked babe (Clare Grant in her fabulous birthday suit) keeps popping up around the hopeful writer, muttering cryptic nonsense about never being free before hurrying away to her demon master (played by a silly-looking Tony Todd), an evil presence poised to dispatch the writers to their graves.
Garris' success in breathing characters and life into some of Stephen King's book-length material is undisputed (The Shining really gets to the core of King's novel about the destructive influences of alcoholism within a haunted hotel tale). As a feature-length TV movie, he could have crafted some compelling back-stories for "Valerie," and setup some internecine conflicts, but one gets a sense a lot of small scenes meant to illuminate their respective bruised pasts were excised to keep the episode at one hour.
The story also infers a greater scope the location or cast couldn't fulfill: if the hotel (a mix of an actual location and amazing set) is literally full with writers, why are there more rooms and empty floors than inhabitants?
Three of the hotel's writers are tied to the Big Mystery, but without any meaningful scenes, the three and pretty much everyone else remain peripheral characters who lack any resonance, and mostly spout the same bitchy complaints about themselves and each other.
Part of these inconsistencies and the goofiness of the demon and the naked babe kind of make sense at the episode's end, but there's some aspects that remain confusing unless one managed to pick up on them, or listened to the director's commentary track, which explains exactly how scenes and specific subtleties are tied to the story's shifting realities. It's also not good when Garris admits, “If you tell this story to anyone, it is, of course, ludicrous,” which makes one wonder why he thought Barker's theme of decades-old, angry, ill thoughts that conceive flesh and blood beings would work on a cinematic level.
Garris' commentary is engaging for his enthusiasm, and he explains how “Valerie In the Stairs” was meant to focus on less clichéd horror elements and dig in to the psychological demons of writers. He frequently ties “Valerie” to his prior feature-length and hour-long projects, and Garris gives a broad view of producing an episode for a cable TV series that's shot in Vancouver with a mix American/Canadian cast & crew.
The strongest performance comes from Christopher Lloyd as a longtime resident and aging loon, spouting acerbically witty lines, while lead actor Tyron Leitso (unbilled on the box art) is too reserved as Rob, who's supposed to be a fresh-faced writer keen on starting clean after a bad relationship, and past alcohol abuse.
Barker fans might enjoy Garris' version of what began as a 45-page treatment larded with impossibly grandiose effects scenes (most of them trimmed from the final shooting scipt), but as some of Barker's recent film projects have shown (the endless and idiotic Hellraiser sequels, and limp, original projects like The Saint Sinner), few have managed to expand upon the writer's clever, if not catchy, original hooks.
As with other DVDs in the series, the transfer is first-rate, and the sound design exploits the 5.1 environment, with Richard Band's score adding a needed dose of sympathy for Rob, and the naked babe he's obsessed with saving.
The making-of featurette covers the basic production stages, and includes some short comments from Barker (whose coarse voice will likely devolve into a faint hiss in the coming years). Todd is shown on set and going through the lengthy makeup applications, and an effects segment showcases the choice moments of wet gore that make cable TV productions more risqué and fun than standard network fare.
A separate featurette has Garris and editor Andrew Cohen seated at the editing bench discussing the film's main shock stabs, and the DVD also includes a photo gallery, and the original film script (which is handy in comparing what material was tweaked in the shooting and editing stages).
This title is available separately, and in a life-sized skull that houses the complete Second Season of Masters of Horror which includes "The Black Cat," "The Damned Thing," "Dream Cruise," "Family," 'Pelts," "Pro-Life," "Right to Die," "The Screwfly Solution," "Sounds Like," "Valerie on the Stairs," "The V Word," "The Washingtonians," and "We All Scream for Ice Cream."
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan