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When Mick Garris made his first installment of MASTERS of HORROR, CHOCOLATE, fan message boards lit up condemning him. CHOCOLATE wasn't Horror, not even close. At best it could be called fantasy, and even calling it dark fantasy would be a stretch.
Mick, known as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood by writers like Stephen King and Clive Barker, has never been a fan favorite among the Horror Thriller cognoscenti.
A while ago I was asking one very diplomatic Horror fan what he thought of Garris' film version of King's RIDING THE BULLET. He kindly described it as a "Decent workman effort." Not knowing what in the world that vague a description could possibly mean, I asked for something a bit more succinct, to which this fan, who likes Garris as a person said, "It's a good Mick Garris movie."
Ahh. Now I understood. Nearly all of you are Horror fans so there is nothing I could say here, in trying to be kind or polite, that could keep you either from personal experience or running off to imdb.com. Mick Garris is known for co-writing and directing CRITTERS 2, QUICKSILVER HIGHWAY, and directing PSYCHO IV; SLEEPWALKERS, THE STAND [TV], THE SHINING [TV], VIRTUAL OBSESSION [TV], RIDING THE BULLET, and DESPERATION [TV]. I know, not a looker in the bunch except for the TV version of DESPERATION, which I actually liked. Actor Ron Perlman ate that movie alive! Damn!
Yet Mick remains a Horror fan even if he has never made it as a Horror master himself. So when Mick had both the idea and the juice to produce MASTERS OF HORROR, he knocked the ball out of the park. MASTERS OF HORROR overall, is clearly the scariest show that has ever been on television.
I don't simply mean gory, that's easy, but genuinely scary. A few of the directors invited to be a part of this show haven't taken that seriously, as you'll see on their individual DVDs (and by that I mean they actually admit in the DVD commentary that they didn't take it seriously! Which you'd also notice from their mediocre - at best - contributions), but Mick does.
Listening to Mick at the Horror & SciFi Film Festival in Phoenix, Arizona this year (2006), Mick was also apparently stung by the criticism toward his contribution, CHOCOLATE (based on his short story). Mick seemed to take the attitude, You want blood? You got it! Mick went and directed DESPERATION. He was going to do it anyway before the feedback on CHOCOLATE, but something tells me he might not have directed it the same. Remind me to go ask him one day.
Now Barker had this story idea for a while and he'd been wanting to tell it. He also knew that Garris would be one of the few people who would try to keep the screen version as accurate to the story as possible.
UNfortunately, Clive has been in a gothic Dark Fantasy to fantasy period of story telling for over a decade now. The Horror tales that everyone loves from Clive stem back to his Books of Blood days of the 1970s and 1980s. His last real Horror novel was THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW from 1989, and even that was lacking - Horror wise - compared to his earlier works. Each consecutive novel has had less Horror and more fantasy until his modern novels, which have little more than Horror elements: a monster or two tossed in here and there. Certainly nothing on the scale of BOOKS OF BLOOD (1984/1985) or CABAL (1988), or his masterpiece THE DAMNATION GAME (1985).
Still, Mick, being the nice guy that he is, accepted VALERIE ON THE STAIRS. For fans of Clive, this is pure Barker. We have the protagonist going nowhere with his life but knowing that he must do something to change that. We have the female perpetual victim or set piece, Valerie. As in every Barker story, she can never connect with her human male love interest and either winds up being the sexual slave of a monster or animal, or the willing sexual partner of a monster or animal. Heterosexual relation is an alien concept to Clive.
So I'm speaking to the congregation when I say all of this. Most of you know what to expect from Garris, and even more of you know what to expect from Barker. But what you may not know is, does VALERIE ON THE STAIRS work?
The answer is yes,
Unpublished writer Rob Hannasee (Tyrone Leitso: HOUSE OF THE DEAD) checks into a unique hostel of sorts. Almost a commune, nearly a flop house, the place exists in the heart of a rundown section of town for one reason, to let unpublished writers write. So the place is filled to overflowing with crabby writers unwilling to admit they suck and more than willing to bitch about this or that publisher, editor, and each other.
Rob is willing to deal with it though. He won't have to look for a job as the house provides food and shelter. All he has to concentrate on is his writing and he can live there until he sells his first book. Rob stays in his room, but most of the writers in the house seem to stay outside of theirs in the lobby, dayroom, or dining room, reading and playing stupid mind games on each other. There is the Professor type (Christopher Lloyd: THE ADDAMS FAMILY, ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES), the downstairs guy Bruce (Jonathon Watton: ABSOLON) who wants to be nice and friendly with Rob - but don't even so much as LOOK at his freakin' typewriter! And two women who are basically Barker one note caricatures.
It isn't long before Rob hears the sound of a woman crying, perhaps screaming. What he discovers seems to be an apparition, a lovely naked woman named Valerie (Clare Grant). She needs help, as she is the sexual slave of a beast (Tony Todd: CANDYMAN, THE CROW, FINAL DESTINATION). Actually, she both desires sex with the monster, as well as finds her situation repugnant. She wants to enjoy sex with the monster, but not if it means having sex with the monster!
Talk about yer mixed messages!
The beast, for his part, can't seem to keep her away from human men, which is too bad because the beast doesn't consider himself her master, but her smitten devotee. Gee! Hard to see where he gets the idea that she likes having him around!
But both Valerie and the monster have their secrets, secrets which keep them alive in this house of churlish petty personalities and wretched refuse. If Rob doesn't keep his head on straight and discover that secret, he might just lose his head to the beast, who seems to have quite the jealous streak (Gee! Hard to see why!). Other writers have died in this house before, including the one whose death vacated the room for Rob.
VALERIE ON THE STAIRS as a Horror movie, also brings up the issue of sex, as Valerie is always naked (and nicely so).
I've met so many directors, old and new, who want to make a Horror movie with lots of sex, but can't understand why these movies don't work. Watching many of them - to me - the problem is obvious. When you have a monster running around killing people, you don't pause for a lesbian sex scene in a shower. It's not because they are lesbians, it's because Everyone Should be Running for their Lives from the Blood Thirsty Freaking Monster!
Yes, JAWS had blink-and-you'll-miss-it nudity in it as the lovely Chrissie (Susan Backlinie: GRIZZLY, DAY OF THE ANIMALS) goes scampering naked into the water, WHERE SHE IS IMMEDIATELY EATEN BY THE MONSTER! (but seriously, who wouldn't want to eat Chrissie?).
When Sean S. Cunningham had the infamous cabin sex scene in FRIDAY THE 13th, it took place BEFORE the campers and counselors realized the danger they were in. Sean (with writers Victor Miller and Ron Kurz) made sure that the hot sex scene also brought home the Immediate Danger facing the campers at Camp Crystal Lake - and in NO uncertain terms.
So let's not be stupid about this. Of course you can have nudity and sex in your horror movie. But you can't stop the movie dead with a scene that has nothing to do with the HORROR! The movie is a HORROR THRILLER! You don't start the movie with a sex scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. You don't stop the story with a porn scene that doesn't advance the story, and if you are going to have sex in your Horror story, it better be some scary damn LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT sex!
Fortunately both Mick and Clive understand this.
Without question, this is the best Mick Garris movie I've ever seen, but I didn't start this review with a preamble about Mick's filmic history for nothing. I'm fully aware of how low a compliment like "Best ever" can apply to Mick, and I'm not going to toss about backhanded compliments (because Mick is, after all, such a nice guy!). But if you've seen Mick's DESPERATION (and if not, you should), then you know that he might be finally hitting his stride.
For too long Mick has been known to writers as "the Nice Guy" in Hollywood. It's even an inside joke with Mick to the point where he gave that name to his company. I've often had the feeling that in both his direction and, especially the editing room, the terribly uneven pace of his films is owed more to having an imaginary King or Barker monkey on his back. There in the dark of the booth, late at night, while watching a loop: A monkey he imagines staring over his shoulder at every thing he does; judging his every move; critically waiting to admonish him for cutting a piece out of the story that, while it works well on paper, disrupts the flow of the visual medium.
That is only a hunch on my part but, for whatever reason, that didn't happen in DESPERATION (possibly because Collie butchered that monkey and ate it). It doesn't happen in VALERIE ON THE STAIRS either. Mick runs the horror full force, letting it build, frighten, and disgust. At the same time he achieves the dreamlike state of a Clive Barker story that we can usually only read about. VALERIE ON THE STAIRS isn't just Mick's best, it's one of the best of the series.
Four Shriek Girls.
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