The Stairs is the type of low-budget horror film you’ve got to admire the ingenuity of, even if it doesn’t quite turn into anything of note. It’s perfectly well directed, and some of the acting feels very naturalistic, but unfortunately, it doesn’t have much on its mind.
The Stairs follows a group of four friends, as they embark on a long hike through a large wooded area. When they encounter a flight of mysterious stairs, everything goes wrong. What they encounter will kill some of them, traumatize others, and push others to profound realizations.
These realizations don’t feel particularly well set up though. Structurally, The Stairs is interesting. It starts with a fifteen-minute cold open, then transfers to the hiker’s storyline. For the first 30 minutes that we hang out with them, the audience is doing just that: Hanging out.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If there’s one great strength The Stairs has it is that the actors all have a wonderful rapport. Because the screenplay (penned by director Peter ‘Drago’ Tiemann and Jason L. Lowe) seems content with framing the characters as archetypes, it’s up to the actors to truly imbue the group with a sense of life. Luckily, that is the case. Adam Korson brings a much needed sentimentality to Nick, the closest thing we get to a protagonist, and Josh Crotty does his best “bad guy Boyd Holbrook” impression as Doug. These characters aren’t particularly special, but they manage to bring the energy that a bunch of late-twenty-somethings that are out in the woods well...would. They are chaotic and stupid because so are people, and it’s fun to watch them bounce off of each other.
The downside to keeping things light is that The Stairs doesn’t really have time to inject anything else into itself thematically other than just a few slasher antics. There is a suggestion of change in Nick, but it is a little shallow. When Nick goes into a long monologue about his inner turmoil, Korson brings the goods, but it feels unearned because the character work was so fast and loose earlier. Without deliberate narrative set ups, without exploring any particular theme, the whole story can only send itself into more empty action. This extends to the various twists that the story has to offer. There is value in the concept here, but with no emotional throughline it’s difficult to hold onto the unfolding narrative.
What is easier to hold onto is the minute to minute filmmaking. As slow as the plot unfolds, there are not any glaring flaws in the technical execution. The action is compelling (if a bit shaky), the creature suits have a good sense of weight to them, and the filmmaker’s obviously understand how to edit around their technical limitations. It also helps that the creative team seems to lean hard into visual references, such as Aliens and maybe even Us, to give the film a sense of place. It’s impressive what they pull off for a low-budget film, and the rhythm of the edit only compliments the effort.
The Stairs is simply a just-fine horror effort, in search of a more compelling narrative. Even without that though, it is a perfectly serviceable slice of low-budget horror that demonstrates a strong cast, and entertaining gore effects. With a few steps, The Stairs could have ironed out it’s thematic inconsistencies, but now it seems content to stick to a lower flight.
The Stairs releases in theaters on August 12 as part of a specical Fathom event.
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