Lair (2021)

Lair is in the First Blood strand of FrightFest 2021’s Digital Edition

Lair begins with a scene of domestic violence, as a mother lies severely injured in a large London house, and her young son is forced to play hide-and-seek. Neither will survive the brutal onslaught of their assailant. Now in jail for a double-murder, Ben Dollarhyde (Oded Fehr) – husband to the mother and father to the son – admits to his colleague Dr Steven Caramore (Corey Johnson) that he carried out the crimes, while insisting that at the time he was possessed by a demon, and forced to witness from the inside his own body perpetrating these horrific acts upon his loved ones. Steven is deeply sceptical – after all, he and Ben have for years been faking paranormal incidents and ghost hunts for cash. Both Ben and his lawyer Wendy Coulson (Alexandra Gilbreath) blame Steven for bringing a cursed piece of wood into Ben’s home. Steven does not believe in curses, but in the hope of proving Ben innocent, and maybe even making some ‘scratch’ on the side, he decides to gather various objects that he has been keeping in storage (like a less public version of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s Occult Museum) and to test their Satanic efficacy on an unwitting family that has come as tourists to London. 

Two problems immediately face any viewer coming to Adam Ethan Crow’s Lair. The first is that its central character Steven is so utterly repellent in every way – sleazy, cynical, self-serving, craven, sociopathic, and all too happy to manipulate and objectify innocent parties to his own ends – that from early on he makes us feel like passengers on a ride that we are not sure we want to take with him. He also, with his stylised verbal mannerisms, seems more caricature than real person. The second is that Steven’s plan and goals are absurdly unconvincing in their nebulousness. The audiovisual material that he is secretly recording is too obviously self-incriminating for him ever to be willing or able to publish it, has little to no connection with the outrage that Ben committed anyway, and would never be admissible in a court of law. And while Steven’s hope to make money from footage of devilry is an understandable aspiration, any horror filmmaker (including Crow) will know all too well that this is far easier said than actually done.

Perhaps, though, these two problems help cancel each other out to a degree. After all, Steven is the kind of guy who likes to play all the angles, no matter what harm he might be causing others, on the mere off-chance that there may be profit for him somewhere down the line – so his elaborate, if somewhat aimless, pursuit of a demonic design is not entirely out of keeping with his capricious character. And once the recently divorced Maria Engel (Aislinn De’Ath), her two daughters – teen Joey (Anya Newall) and the much younger Lilly (Lara Mount) – and Maria’s new lover Carly Cortes (Alana Wallace) have moved into the luxury apartment that Steven has rented to them, Steven himself thankfully recedes into the film’s background, even if we are occasionally reminded that our intrusion upon this family’s more intimate moments (including an entirely gratuitous softcore lesbian sex scene) aligns our own viewing with Steven’s creepy voyeurism.  

Despite Steven’s doubts, the devil – or is it devils? – will soon make an appearance, via poltergeist activities, sulphurous manifestations (a good CG effect) and bodily possessions, leaving a trail of blood and corpses that must be retraced through video footage and flashbacks. There is a suggestion here that the demons embody, or at least exploit, tensions already existing within these domestic confines, even as others – including, but not exclusive to, Steven – are engaged in their own exploitation and manipulation, all designed to capitalise on innocent victims for the achievement of more obscure aims. Different characters are circling here unseen with their different plots, and the devil proves less hidden than a range of human players operating from the shadows. While the premise of Lair (the deliberate haunting of an ‘ordinary’, oblivious family) is certainly intriguing, its set-up is too contrived to stand up to scrutiny, and none of it, during its unraveling let alone upon reflection, makes a whole lot of sense, as we (eventually) see an unnecessarily over-complicated stratagem play out, with narrative economy the first to be sacrificed. Lair is a diabolical mess of a movie, flinging a dozen tropes into the air and seeing what is left sticking to the walls.

strap: I, object: in Adam Ethan Crow’s film, a paranormal investigator secretly haunts a family to prove that items can be demonically cursed

© Anton Bitel