★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Peter “Drago” Tiemann.
Straight outta’ the Pacific Northwest comes another joint from the same team that brought you 2018’s Big Legend. A far more daring, if not a little less linear, than their first outing with Bigfoot, 2021’s The Stairs is a complex bit of business wrapped up in a cautionary camping tale.
One of our go-to rules for the world of horror is that you really have to believe and empathize with the protagnists. The more empathy, the better the film. Where The Stairs excels is the ensemble cast. Each character is better than the last. A cast that’s so well conceived it gives an air of effortlessness — and we’re not even talking about the super-cool cameo from THE Bo Duke (John Schneider).
The Stairs is excactly as advertised. A spooky and ill-placed T-shaped set of stairs somewhere in the deep recesses of the Cascade mountain range. The film begins with a young and awkward boy, the victim of playground bullying, and his grandpa, John Schnieder who head out for a generational bonding deer hunting trip.
Nothing more special than the bond between grandpa and grandson out for a successful afternoon of deer hunting. That is until they stumble upon…The Stairs.
Not threatening and certainly not treacherous, these stairs evil lie in their misplaced nature. Like seeing pineapple on pizza (sorry Hawaiian pizza fans), you instantaneously know something is just not right. Pineapple doesn’t belong on pizza and stairs with hanging chandeliers do not belong in the middle of a mountainous wilderness area.
The Stairs shifts, juggles, and plays with time in a fascinating way. Following the grandpa and grandson’s ill-fated deer outing, a group of hikers 20 years later, sets out for substantial backpacking trip.
The group is perfectly concocted and humorously acted by a group of hyper-believable and hyper-likable 20-somethings. No one’s too pretty, no one’s to uniformly type-cast, and all are exceptionally well played to each and every scene — or rather, each and every scene that they survive. Each character is surprisingly a standout in their own way, but the likable Neanderthal Dirty Doug (Josh Crotty) eats up each and every scene he’s a part of.
Like survival backpacking horror films before, the group is subject to a series of scenes that perfectly build on one another in a “well, that’s not right” to a full-on “what the $%&* is happening” climax. There are leeches, there are surreal scenes of “parental” malfeasance involving a grub baby (see photos below), and there’s even a witch’s (?) cove tucked away in the woods for good measure.
These things taken singularly might have allowed the group to collectively chalk them up to a weird happenstance, but when all these oddities are piled on top of each other it’s just too much for them to take.
Eventually, the group (what’s left of them — c’mon it’s a horror film, you knew a couple people had to get axed) encounters the same set of stairs that grandpa and grandson had wandered across 20 years prior. That’s when things shift gears from “huh” to “WHUT?!?”
The Stairs points at some thrilling pieces of horror and sci-fi, but unfortunately, while it does lean more to the horror side of the ledger, it never fully lets the audience in on rationale for the grub baby, the stairs, or the time-shifting underworld that houses the full spook show. This lack of exposition isn’t particularly problematic, but it does make clear The Stairs really is an amalgam of ideas without a strong north star.
If you’ve always hated camping and the unknown oddities that lurk in the woods, The Stairs will not assuage these phobias. Nature is a purely pleasant construct, but when it’s injected with something otherworldly, it really shows. These oddities are noticeable and off-putting.
If you happen to encounter this structure in the woods…for god’s sake don’t take the stairs.
The Stairs is likely Rated R and it will be available for VOD and in the theaters late summer 2021.