REVIEW: The Room at the Top of the Stairs
– By Antony Thomas
If you’ve been stuck gawping oscitantly at a screen for as long as I have, you become immune to the usual hackneyed movie tropes that seep like gangrenous effluent from the ulcerated appendage of an expired TV dinner. It’s the same old feculence: teenagers isolated in murderous backwoods; ‘found footage’ of some dubious folklore event (I can’t even remember to press record half the bloody time, let alone keep filming while some shape-shifting revenant of childhood nightmares writhes out of the shadows to slaughter my friends); haunted houses with shut off rooms forbidden to guests (you’d think they’d get DIY SOS to repaint the miserable fucking place and sell the old rocking horse to those shops that charge rich idiots £700 for distressed teapot stands or something); and the usual throng of priests tentatively entering mews houses to deal with the uncertainty of adolescent demonic possession (don’t any of these padres own a DVD player?). On top of the heaving mephitic landfill of torture porn, zombie outbreaks and ‘sensitive’ vampire miasma, it all results in another night in you can’t get back, groomed to stupor by procrustean forces, bemoaning for a day when something emerges that is a little a different, a new threat from another angle.
Nietzsche wrote: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” I’ve been staring into this hole of shit for some time now, hoping for a glimpse into the Gates of Hell, and have been more disappointed than a beggar sitting outside Argos with a handful of Haitian gourde.
Thankfully little gems of horror do pop into view from time-to-time to expectorate the odd hopeful flame and fill your lungs with the beguiling heat of the night. Briony Kidd’s 2010 short story The Room at the Top of the Stairs has some promising convection of doom and creepiness. Surrounding a joyless young woman (Fiannah de Rue) who takes lodgings with an irritating cluster of smug students, the film skips through emotional couloirs of loneliness, lament, nostalgia and latent threat. There is no linear progression to the project; punctuated by interesting tracking shots, sepia-tinted neon lighting and a musical soundtrack that switches rails from a menacing drone to the sort of thudding Goblinesque Italian electro-prog of giallo flicks. There’s even one section where the dreamy wistful visuals and accompaniment are redolent of those Yellow Pages ads (*inserts Joss Ackland voice-over: “good old Yellow Pages. We’re not just here for the nasty things in life, such as an unblocked incubus, or a gonorrheaic bleb morphing into the screaming face of a tortured cat under your skin….”).
The story progresses in a confusing narrative, where the girl almost overnight experiences a mystifying transmogrification from shy bullied newby to some hellion dark force scribbling on walls & chewing on a lump of offal, which makes Miley Cyrus’s metamorphosis seem almost arthritic in comparison. And this is where we start to ask questions: is it the room? Is it the stigmata from the previous occupant, Carmen (who turns out to be a disappointingly boring attention troll)? Is it the evil inherent in the girl herself? What do those lines on the wall mean? None of it matters. Neither does it that she arrived with only a cardboard box & a binbag. I’ve got so much accumulated life’s detritus that it would take two return journeys by a UN humanitarian cargo plane to move the shit. This lack of coherence is what I like. We don’t always have to get it turning up, shouting through our letterbox & inviting us to view it opening its narrative veins on our front lawns. We don’t need everything explained. Our own imaginations are where the darkest horrors reside. That is why Blair Witch and The Haunting are two of the scariest films ever. Confusion and chaos haunts our world. And we have to test our own thoughts. The unexplained fine-spun subtlety of The Room at The Top of Stairs sits easily on the same shelf as Pontypool, in so much that it is likely to alienate as much as enthral or even anger the viewer in equal measure. Give it a shot. It’s only 15 minutes of your life. That’s a quarter of whatever this month’s bullshit algorithm of Jamie Oliver’s mockney life-enhanced japes are. Now that is torture porn.