In 2005, Showtime began airing Masters of Horror. This weekly anthology series featured original one hour horror films from famous and emerging horror directors. Mick Garris was the executive producer on the series, and he used his decades of experience and connections in the industry to bring in some of the greatest minds in horror.
Mick Garris’ second episode in Masters of Horror is an adaptation of a Clive Barker story. Specifically, Barker wrote a 45 page treatment for Masters of Horror that became Valerie on the Stairs. He sent it to his friend Mick Garris directly, just asking him to take a look at it and see if it would work. Garris liked it enough to adapt it into a screenplay for his own episode on Season 2. It’s an idea that Barker had for years, but he finally found the right venue for it in Masters of Horror.
Clive Barker’s name precedes him at this point. Just in film alone, he is the creator of Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and Lord of Illusions. He also wrote the original story adapted into Candyman. Other notable novels include The Damnation Game, Weaveworld, The Thief of Always, and The Books of Abarat. He also published six short story collections in the Books of Blood series, which led to some of the most iconic modern horror stories (“The Midnight Meat Train,” “In the Hills, the Cities,” “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament,” “New Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “Rawhead Rex,” “The Inhuman Condition,” “In the Flesh,” and “On Jerusalem Street” among others). He’s also an accomplished playwright, a skilled visual artist, a game designer, a graphic novelist/comic artist, and even designed two series of horror action figures with MacFarlane.
Clive Barker’s horror work is unique. He writes an incredibly visceral world driven by primal desires. If characters aren’t pursuing sexual relationships or conquests, they’re ripping each other to shreds for the thrill and pleasure. The universes he’s created all have their own rules, though his central thesis is the dark side of desire. The opening quotation in the first volume of Books of Blood says it all, “Every body is a book of blood; Wherever we’re opened, we’re red.” His world is a violent one, but one driven by inclusivity. We are all equal in his stories, all capable of being the hero or the villain, the monster or the victim, and everyone in between. We can be one of them or all of them, but never none of them.
Valerie on the Stairs is a wonderful spin on apartment Gothic. A young man moves into a new apartment complex. Everyone who lives there is a writer. None are successful, but they’re all trying. On his first night there, Rob meets Valerie, a beautiful woman begging him for help from the top of the stairs. Then she disappears through a wall and his new neighbors arrive just in time to yell at him for being too loud. The visions of a violent past in his new dream home reveal a darker world than he could ever write as a horror author.
Valerie on the Stairs is the rare horror film about writing to actually be terrifying. Everyone in the apartment complex has a secret. It becomes clear that their lack of productivity is the fault of greater forces at play. Just looking at Rob’s work, we see glitch after glitch erase any progress he makes on his dream project. Any attempt to recreate his work is never as good as the original draft. Something is stopping him from telling his story, especially while Valerie is reaching out to him.
The episode is one of the more visually striking entries in Masters of Horror. The real world is dull, filled with neutral colors and patterns. Valerie’s world seems to pulse with energy. The sepia filter makes Valerie’s red hair and pale skin glow in an angelic light. Her world can only be stopped by red, whether through the force of the beast that torments her or the blood of the writers trying to capture true beauty.
I mentioned it when discussing Garris’ season one episode Chocolate, but I think Garris is only as good a filmmaker as the screenplay he is working on. He has a clear eye for what technically works onscreen and can direct his actors to clearly live in the same universe. His collaboration with Barker leads to one of the best films connected to either of their cinematic careers. Valerie on the Stairs is a thrilling and beautiful horror film about power, desire, love, lust, and dreams.
Content warning: Nudity, violence against women, foul language, addiction, death by suicide (discussed), gore
Up next: S2E09 “Right to Die” from director Rob Schmidt.