It’s summer, and that means slasher films, and Peter Tiemann’s The Stairs offers up a peril-picture for viewers nervous about getting lost in the woods. The film opens with the disappearance of Grandpa Gene (John Schneider) and his grandson Jesse (Thomas Wethington) during a hunting trip, linked to a mysterious set of stairs in the woods that lead to nowhere. Twenty years later, two brothers named Josh (Brent Bailey) and Nick (Adam Korson) go with their friend Rebeccah (Stacey Oristano), her girlfriend Jordan (Tyra Colar), and their frenemy “Dirty” Doug (Josh Crotty), for a hiking trip. As one might guess, weird occurrences begin, including Rebecca coming across a terrifying woman early on.
Although The Stairs has some good concepts and a likeable enough cast of characters, it never quite excels due to its tone and lack of inner integrity. After the gang witnesses a traumatic and gruesome encounter, they’re somehow able to regroup in a rather calm manner and continue their hike. Although the movie exists in the same subgenre of horror as The Blair Witch Project, the college kids from that movie see far less graphic scenes yet their fear and frustration feels more palpable. The Stairs also lacks the intensity or intrigue you would expect from a story about being disoriented and endangered in the woods. It’s shot fairly conventionally without a lot of editing choices that build tension. Even as it offers compelling visuals, it doesn’t seem very interested in centering them or exploring them further.
The Stairs, like many indie horror films with budget-limitations on effects and other technical feats, is at its best when it gives room for its actors to emote and respond. Adam Korson as Nick, the adult younger brother of the movie, turns in a great performance with a surprisingly emotional and genuine scene that transforms the film, spinning it in a different and better direction. Crotty does well as the gross, loud-mouthed friend who only received an invitation out of guilt, and Colar gives a grounded performance with her role as a queer Black woman, a character rarely seen in horror. It’s unfortunate, though, that the film chooses to objectify her during a male character’s dream-sequence.
Although it feels like there’s a great little film straining to emerge with interesting images and ideas, the movie ultimately feels like a draft that needed more revision and expansion. As other reviewers have said, it’s disappointing that the threatening presence in the woods is almost identical to one from an episode of The X-Files, and although borrowing and homages can be productive, it isn’t clear why we’re getting this particular being in this particular film. The movie is never quite scary or textured enough to feel like an effective horror film, even though the actors’ performances strive toward evoking real fear and suffering. For horror fans hankering for a summer-time deep-woods flick, The Stairs may not fully satisfy.
The Stairs had a one-night-only cinema event on August 12th
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter