The atmosphere starts thick in director Adam Ethan Crow’s Lair—the eerie piano music over the sharp labored breaths over an unseen figure. From the sound alone, we know this is a victim trying to remain out of sight, and in the second frame of the film, we see a young boy shrouded in the darkness of a closet or equally inaccessible place. Something is terrifyingly amiss as he begins holding his hand over his mouth to silence his breathing. The scene grows increasingly disturbing with closeups of his stalker’s bloody hand and the boy’s mother’s body being thrown to death from a balcony on the second level. The boy, desperate to escape, finally unlocks the door, but like something out of a nightmare is pulled in while a passerby witnesses just a moment of the domestic violence taking place within.
It’s a bit of a masterful introductory scene that excites the senses and makes your hair stand on end. The viewer never sees the killer, and it’s an increasingly nerve-wracking experience as the life of a young boy hangs in the balance. While the terror dominates the inside of the house, I enjoyed the addition of the curious passerby. This creates a kind of commentary on the people outside looking in when domestic issues arise in a household. Whether the person walking by the house does anything about the problem is never established. Still, it’s clear from the child’s excessive pounding and near escape that something worth investigating is happening at the otherwise normal-looking address.
Lair’s icy cold open sets up the entrance of Steven Caramore (Corey Johnson), visiting his colleague Ben (The Mummy’s Oded Fehr) after committing the atrocity of having murdered his family. As we come face to face with the monster behind the bloody hands, and having the talented Fehr on board, I began getting excited for what was next. Unfortunately, these are the only moments we get with Fehr. His character, Ben, tries to convince fellow paranormal investigator Steven that he was overtaken by something evil in the moments leading up to his family’s murder. This sets up the unsettling theme of domestic rage against the backdrop of “it wasn’t me” and “I don’t know what came over me” excuses in the process. Steven quashes Ben’s cries of being possessed by something, stating that they were always skeptics of the uncovered artifacts and haunted places they were investigating.
Ben unburdens himself through the epiphany of supernatural occurrences, telling Steven that they had been wrong all those years. The artifacts, stored in Ben’s home, may have genuinely held the evil that people said they did, which would mean that convicted murderers they spoke could have been telling the truth and that they too were the victims of the power of these cursed items. After speaking with Ben’s lawyer (Alexandra Gilbreath) about Steven’s own culpability, Steven hatches a plan to prove Ben’s guilt even though he presents it as a way to help exonerate Ben to their business partner Ola (Kashif O’Connor).
Corey Johnson has some remarkably deadpanned one-liners throughout his exchanges with Ben, Ben’s lawyer, and Ola, which is a testament to the sharp, dynamic dialogue and how Johnson conveys his brash American witticisms throughout Lair. His intense, angry tone helps the audience recognize Steven as a parasitic sleazebag looking to save himself from the potential legal action of having psychologically overwhelmed Ben with the paranormal folklore that led him to commit the heinous murders. Like any sleazebag, Steven plans to weasel his way out of his current predicament, and with the help of his father’s condemned building in London, he may just be able to.
Steven establishes an Airbnb in the location without much credence to safety standards and gets a charming family to lodge there on holiday. Steven tells Ola he needs to add the supposed supernatural items to the family’s rooms one at a time so they can document the effects of each piece. Steven also puts cameras in all of the rooms to chronicle what happens in each room during their stay. If a demon or malicious spirit does turn up during the visit, Steven has metal shudders installed to stop whatever might be inside the house from getting out.
After crafting one hell of a setup, Lair shifts gears to introduce us to a family on rocky ground. The Engels, Maria (Aislinn De’Ath), Joey (Anya Newall), and Lilith (Lara Mount), along with Maria’s new partner Carly (Alana Wallace), are understandably excited when they arrive at the flat that looks like a dream come true. The family seems Rockwellian. You would never guess that they’re looking to take it easy after a difficult divorce and the start of their mother’s new relationship. Still, it isn’t long before relationships in the apartment begin to become volatile, and Steven begins seeing things he cannot explain.
I found Lair to be a lot of fun, Johnson keeps the film moving through the early stages, but newcomer Anya Newall, who gives off A Nightmare on Elm Street Heather Langenkamp vibe, keeps the film running in the later portions. Themes of misogyny, voyeurism, and gaslighting keep the creep factor high on Steven Caramore and his inability to accept responsibility for what he’s caused and reminding us once again of those after-the-fact excuses we saw from Ben at the start of the film. This makes him the perfect psychopath by today’s standards, compared to the kind of people you’d see uploading the drama of a fight on their phone while doing nothing to help resolve the situation. The film slightly makes a mess of itself when it delays its third act by chopping it up into pieces, creating a mystery you already suspect the conclusion to. Still, Lair remains entertaining, and once the carnage starts, it’s hard to deny. The film feels like a knock-off Conjuring spin-off, though it’s certainly better than most of them.
Lair is playing October 10 as a part of Salem Horror Fest’s second weekend. Individual tickets are not for sale. Passes for the whole festival, including the virtual portion or just a weekend, can be purchased through the Salem Horror Fest Website.