Some genres are easily identified by tropes. Science fiction can be identified by spacecraft, time travel, extra-terrestrial life, artificial intelligence. Horror can be identified by an initial journey, a focus on victimhood and suffering, unsafe environments, a loss of control. While reductive and far from the whole story of these genres, tropes such as these signal to viewers what they are seeing and can expect.
The Stairs offers tropes from both horror and science fiction in ample measure, as director Peter ‘Drago’ Tiemann uses a mélange of tropes in recognizable and not especially surprising ways. The film begins with some truly gorgeous aerial shots of Washington State, the location scenery used to create a sense of both beauty and awe. Within this isolated arena, we have a journey (hello, horror trope), as Kate Martin (Trin Miller, “Captain Fantastic”) drives her son Jesse (Thomas Wethington) to the home of her parents Bernice (Kathleen Quinlan, “Breach”) and Gene (John Schneider, “The Rebound”). Gene and Jesse set off for a hunting trip, well-equipped with rifles, high-visibility vests and food, some of which Gene must not eat because of his health. A grandfather and grandson taking a trip into the woods, what could go wrong (hello, horror trope)? While you may expect something weird and horrible, it may not be what turns up, especially in the case of the titular fixture.
After this opening sequence, the narrative jumps forward twenty years to a group of young people gathering for a hiking and camping trip. Brothers Josh (Brent Bailey, “Break Even”) and Nick (Adam Korson, “The Female Brain”) stop for coffee and receive a warning from a local harbinger (hello, horror trope), while a wall of missing person posters suggest that this trip might not be the best idea. Undaunted, they continue their journey and meet up with Rebeccah (Stacey Oristano, “Waterlily Jaguar”) and Jordon (Tyra Colar, “Survival Skills”), before obnoxious addition Doug (Josh Crotty, “Twisted Blues”) also arrives.
The viewer’s enjoyment of The Stairs may well depend on their engagement with these characters. Josh and Nick put across a sibling relationship, although we do not get enough of Rebeccah and Jordon to get much of a sense of them together. As the narrative continues, Jordon emerges as smart and capable, but Rebeccah rapidly falls apart. This is not the actor’s fault — Oristano embodies the character with verve and energy — but the script gives her little to do. The overuse of character traits is especially egregious in the case of Doug, who seems to be annoying for the sake of it. Overall, the chemistry between the five is middling at best, with insufficient depth or nuance to draw the viewer in.
Despite not being that great together, we follow these hikers through the woods, where they encounter strange and menacing things. Danger, gore and death follow, in ways that are reminiscent of “Deliverance,” “The Blair Witch Project,” and similar folk horror offerings where city people get lost in the woods (hello, horror trope). There are unexpected sounds with no evident source; there are sudden flashes of something at the corner of the frame; people appear and disappear randomly. What there isn’t is much sense of threat. It is a cliché in horror that characters behave stupidly, but here the problem is more that the five hikers behave inconsistently — while demonstrating some intelligence and responding sensibly to danger, they also spend an inordinate amount of time asking “What the FUCK is going on?!” which draws unfortunate comparisons to this year’s dismal “Wrong Turn” reboot.
Lighting also becomes a prominent problem. It’s a fundamental part of motion pictures to be able to see what is going on, and a good way to create an ominous atmosphere is to limit characters’ illumination. This helps to place the viewer more in the characters’ situation — we cannot see what is happening and thus share their unease. The recent “In The Earth” as well as “Pitch Black” are great examples of this, and while The Stairs does feature our heroes looking for a missing friend in the dead of night, the scene is largely spoiled by a major unsourced light over the proceedings. It may seem churlish to complain about something as basic as lighting, but if the lighting obstructs your engagement, that’s a problem.
While Tiemann is not great at suspense, he does succeed at jump scares. There is a sequence in a properly dark location where, despite being foreshadowed, a sudden appearance is startling. Later on, some gory deaths come out of nowhere and there is some trepidation over who will survive. These gruesome kills give the film some shock value, but interestingly, it is the random associations that cause the film to really fall down. Screenwriters Tiemann and Jason L. Lowe throw various bits and pieces into the mix, including the titular Stairs, a subterranean environment, timey-wimey weirdness (hello, science fiction trope), oddballs in the forest and some beasties. The beasties are reminiscent of a creature from “The X-Files” crossed with the crawlers from “The Descent” (another movie that uses darkness to great effect), but as is often the case these creatures work best when only seen partially — see them in the (unsourced) light and the exaggerated movement of the performer looks more silly than menacing. That is perhaps the best way to summarize The Stairs — many promising aspects are assembled into a whole that is less than the sum of its parts, and ultimately comes across as rather silly.